Food Labels (Lesson 15)

Karen Overstreet, Roy, Heli J.  |  1/30/2010 12:56:36 AM

Getting Started

Before you start this lesson, go to your pantry and pick up a few food products that have a Nutrition Facts labels. If you have two similar products that you can compare, that would be great. You probably have two different kinds of cereal or maybe two kinds of soup. You get the idea.  As you learn about each point on the label, see if you can find that information on one of your food products.

What You Will Learn

This lesson will help you to better understand the Nutrition Facts label. You will learn how to use it to make healthier choices in the supermarket.


Like many things you do – caring for your family, job responsibilities, preparing meals and taking care of your home – healthful eating is a balancing act. It takes skill to get it right.

Health experts agree that what you eat and how much you eat affects your health now and in the future. It is important for you to understand the links between diet and health and develop skills to consistently make informed food decisions.

There are four tools to help you do just that! First, the Dietary Guidelines are guidelines based on what foods we should eat to maintain our health. Second, MyPlate, a food guide using five main food groups (fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy), shows us how much to eat each day to be healthy. We need to eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups. The Nutrition Facts label is the third tool for healthier eating. Learning to use it will help you make healthier food choices. Fourth, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Eating Plan is an additional plan recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.


Nutrition labeling has been around since the 1970s. In the early 1990s, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised the food label in major ways. (USDA regulates labels on meat and poultry, and the FDA regulates labeling on all other food products.) Starting in 1994, food manufacturers were required to use the Nutrition Facts label on their products.

Label Changes

Nutrition labels are now mandatory for most packaged foods and voluntary for many raw foods. The nutrition panel has been redesigned to reflect today's health concerns and make it easer to understand and use. The nutrition panel is called the Nutrition Facts.

What's on the Label

The government has set strict definitions for terms that can be used to describe a food's nutrient content. These are free, low, reduced, high, less, more, light, good source of, lean and extra lean. On the package, you will see words like low-fat, high fiber and no cholesterol.

Currently there are 17 health claims that are allowed to be used on food labels. They are based on sound research proving the relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease. These claims are regulated by the government and give important information about how diet affects health.

Find the ingredient list on your food package. Read the list of ingredients. Ingredient lists are required on labels of all foods with more than one ingredient. The ingredients are listed in order by weight, from most to least. If you have food allergies, the ingredient list can help you identify foods that might be a problem for you.

Food labels tell a lot about a food. They don't suggest what foods to eat. That's your decision, and it should be based on the Food Guide. But labels can help you make the best food choices; choices that benefit you now and in the future, too.

Nutrition Facts Label

Let's take a look at a Nutrition Facts label. We'll start at the top and work our way down. You'll want to follow along on a food package you have in hand or on the label included here.

Serving size is the first thing you will see on the top of the label. Calorie and nutrient contents are given per serving. Serving sizes have been standardized for most foods. They reflect the amounts people actually eat. Standardized servings make it easier to make comparisons. Servings are given in common household measures as well as metric measures. For example, the serving size here is one cup or 228 grams.

Remember that a serving and a helping are not the same thing. If you eat more or less than the serving size on the label, you'll need to adjust the amounts of nutrients accordingly. Just for fun, check the serving size on your box of cereal. Next time you serve yourself a bowl, measure out one serving. Is this more or less than you normally eat?

Next is servings per container. This tells you how many servings you can expect to get. In this package there are two one-cup servings. The next part of the label tells you how many calories and nutrients are in each serving of the food.

Calories per serving is first. In this food, there are 260 calories in each one-cup serving. Remember, if you eat two servings, you have to double the calories and all the nutrients. Of those 260 calories, 120 calories are from fat. This is shown to help you meet the dietary guidelines that recommend people get no more than 30% of their calories from fat. This food has 120 of the 260 calories from fat, or 46% calories from fat.

Nutrients listed on the label are those most important to the health of today's consumers. Some nutrients we should try to eat less of, such as fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Some nutrients we need more of, such as fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The label tells you how much of each of these nutrients is in a serving of the food. It's hard to know if that amount is a lot or a little.

To make your job easier, the Nutrition Facts label includes % Daily Value. The % Daily Value shows you how a food fits into your overall diet.

% Daily Value (%DV) is a reference number based on the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The percent DV (%DV) listed on Nutrition Facts labels tells adults what percentage of the DV is provided by 1 serving. % DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Your required Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs. For example, if you see a food contains 200 milligrams of cholesterol and 200 milligrams of sodium, would you know it is high in cholesterol and low in sodium? The % Daily Value is the clue. It tells you that it has 66% of your daily value for cholesterol and 8% of your daily value for sodium. Daily Values are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. Cholesterol, sodium, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron do not change on a higher or lower caloric intake.

A neat trick you can use is to remember the 5 and 20 rule. If a food has 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it has 20% or more, it's considered high.

To learn more about the food label, click on the locator address:

Descriptive Terms

Prior to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, many descriptive terms used on labels were not regulated. Today, food products using descriptive terms on food labels must meet strict regulations. Understand that it isn't important or even possible to memorize all the definitions. It's only important to know that these terms have strict regulations. The list below will help you understand what the descriptive terms mean.

Label Language

Just like the Nutrition Facts, nutrient content claims are defined for one serving. For example, that means that low– fat cheese has no more than three grams of fat per serving.

Nutrient Content Claim – Definition per Serving


Calorie free – less than 5 calories

Low calorie – 40 calories or less

Reduced or fewer calories – at least 25% fewer calories*

Light 50% fewer calories from fat, 30% lower calories overall*


Sugar free – less than 0.5 gram sugar

Reduced sugarat least 25% less sugars*

No added sugar – no sugars or sugar alcohols added during processing or packing, including ingredients that contain sugars such as fruit juices, applesauce or dried fruit


Fat freeless than 0.5 gram of fat

Low fat – 3 grams or less of fat per 100 grams

Reduced or less fat – at least 25% less fat than reference food*

Light50% less fat than reference food

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat free – less than 0.5 gram saturated fat

Low saturated fat1 gram or less saturated fat per serving and not more than 15% of calories from saturated fat

Reduced or Less saturated fat – at least 25 % less saturated fat*


Cholesterol free – less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat

Low cholesterol20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat

Reduced or less cholesterolat least 25% less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat*


Sodium freeless than 5 milligrams sodium

Very low sodium35 milligrams or less sodium

Low sodium 140 milligrams or less sodium

Reduced or less sodium – at least 25% less sodium*

Light in sodium – 50% or less sodium


High fiber – 5 grams or more

Good source of fiber – 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams

More or added fiber – at least 2.5 grams more fiber

Other Claims

High, rich in, excellent source of – 20% or more of Daily Value

Good source – provides 10% to 19% of Daily Value

More, enriched, fortified – added 10% or more of Daily Value

Lean** – Less than 10 grams fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol

Extra lean** – Less than 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol

* as compared with a standard serving size of the traditional food

** on meat, poultry, seafood and game meats

If you read carefully, you noticed that reduced means at least 25% less of something than the traditional food. For example, reduced sodium is 25% less sodium, reduced fat is 25% less fat, and reduced cholesterol is 25% less cholesterol than the traditional food. This one is easy to remember, but a 25% reduction doesn't mean it is low in sodium, fat, cholesterol, or whatever. You must read the label.

Health Claims

Health claims about the relationships between a nutrient or a food and the risk of a disease or health-related issue are now permitted on food labels. These claims are based on sound research. Claims are approved in the following areas:

Qualified Health Claims about Atopic Dermatitis Risk

100% Whey-Protein Partially Hydrolyzed Infant Formula and Reduced Risk of Atopic Dermatitis

Qualified Claims about Cancer Risk

Tomatoes and/or Tomato Sauce & Prostate, Ovarian, Gastric and Pancreatic Cancers

Calcium and Colon/Rectal Cancer & Calcium and Recurrent Colon/Rectal Polyps

Green Tea & Cancer

Selenium & Cancer

Antioxidant Vitamins & Cancer

Qualified Claims about Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Nuts & Heart Disease

Walnuts & Heart Disease

Omega-3 Fatty Acids & Coronary Heart Disease

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids from Olive Oil & Coronary Heart Disease

Unsaturated Fatty Acids from Canola Oil & Coronary Heart Disease

Corn Oil & Heart Disease

Possibly B vitamins & Vascular Disease

B Vitamins & Vascular Disease

Qualified Claims about Cognitive Function

Phosphatidylserine & Cognitive Dysfunction and Dementia

Qualified Claims about Diabetes

Chromium Picolinate & Diabetes

Qualified Claims about Hypertension
Calcium & Hypertension, Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension, and Preeclampsia

Qualified Claims about Neural Tube Birth Defects

0.8 mg Folic Acid & Neural Tube Birth Defects

As you can see, the claims center around fiber, fruits and vegetables, and specific plants and their substances. Therefore, a diet high in fruits, vegetables and dairy, such as the DASH diet plan, can improve health and well being and reduce chronic diseases such as hypertension.


Take a minute to brainstorm. List the 10 top reasons for reading a food label.

Take a look at one of the food packages you pulled from your pantry. Write down five things that the label tells you about the food inside.

Suppose you were choosing a breakfast cereal. What might make you buy one over the other? How would you decide which one had the nutrients you need? The Nutrition Facts panel on the label can help you compare the calories and nutrients of these cereals and help you make an informed choice.

Reading a food label helps you make food choices within the Food Guide recommendations. The food label is good reading for healthy eating. You can tell a lot about a food just by reading the label. This is one of the best sources of information available to you.

Remember, the Dietary Guidelines, a food guide, Nutrition Facts and DASH Eating Plan work together to help you and your family eat more healthfully. The Dietary Guidelines set up guidelines for American households to follow to maintain health. MyPlate shows the major food groups and serving amounts based on the Dietary Guidelines. The DASH Eating Plan is an alternate food guide following the Dietary Guidelines. These along with the Nutrition Facts label help you to make healthy food choices. Here's wishing you and your family healthy eating!

Web Sites to Visit and Other Assignments


Web Site Assignments

Explore these websites to learn more about the nutrition facts label:

Mayo Clinic Nutrition Labeling

Go to the website, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.

Other Assignments

On your next trip to the grocery store, compare the following foods:

  • frozen green beans and canned green beans for sodium content
  • skim milk, low-fat milk, reduced-fat milk and whole milk for fat and calcium content
  • various breakfast cereals for fiber and iron content
  • frozen dinners for nutrition, convenience and cost
  • soft drinks versus 100 percent fruit juice for nutrition and cost
  • chips versus whole-wheat crackers for nutrition and cost
  • soft tub margarine, butter and shortening for trans fat content

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