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Deciphering Food Labels

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Labels line grocery store shelves, and their bold artwork and colorful photos appeal to adults and children. Food that claims to be low in fat and cholesterol free calls out to the health-conscious consumer. Turn a can or box around and you'll discover the back or side covered with nutritional values, a listing of ingredients, and other food label information.

Research has shown that eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, some cancers, and osteoporosis. To determine if your family's diet is well balanced, nutritious, and low in fat and cholesterol, you need to look at the nutritional values of the food you're buying, understand what ingredients the food contains, and keep an eye on your child's caloric intake.

Food labels provide these nutritional answers. In addition, labels allow you to comparison shop and make informed food choices. By reading labels, you can feed your family a variety of foods that meets their various nutritional needs.

Why Food Labels Were Created

One hundred years ago, food labels barely identified a container's content. Not only were buyers uncertain what ingredients were used to make a product, but quality was also often under suspicion.

In the early 1900s, the Federal Food and Drug Act authorized the federal government to regulate the safety and quality of food. Soon the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that ingredients be listed. By 1924 the FDA condemned false claims and misleading statements on food labels. Thereafter, the net weight and names and addresses of the manufacturer or distributor had to be stated on labels as well.

In addition to these regulations, a system for identifying nutritional quality in foods was being established. By 1973 nutritional values that supplied information about the amounts of vitamins and minerals had to be listed.

Fast forward to 1990, when the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act called for a major overhaul of food labels. The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made changes to the labels that would make healthy eating easier. The new labels were launched in 1994 and included five important changes:

* Nutrition information in bigger, more readable type is required for almost all packaged foods. The information appears on the back or side of packaging under the title "Nutrition Facts." The information is also displayed in grocery stores near fresh foods, like fruits, vegetables, and fish.
* A new column of information, "% Daily Value," tells people how the food fits into a healthy diet.
* The label must include information about saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, calories from fat, and other important information.
* Serving sizes are now closer to the amount that people actually eat.
Health claims, such as "light" or "low fat," must meet strict government definitions so that they are accurate and consistent from one food to another.

Learning Label Language

At a glance, it may appear as though everything on the shelves either adds fiber to your diet or reduces fat intake. Nutritional information you need to understand to make an informed food choice includes food label claims, calorie requirements, serving sizes, percent daily values, minerals and vitamins, nutrients, and fat percentage.

It's important to remember that the information found on food labels is based on an average diet of 2,000 calories per day. Actual caloric and nutritional requirements vary by age, weight, gender, and activity levels. Use food labels as a guide to determine whether a food is generally nutritious, but don't worry so much about exact amounts as long is your child is growing normally and seems healthy. If you have any concerns about your child's nutrition, talk to your child's doctor.

Food Label Claims

A food claim is often made by the manufacturer on the front of the package - for example, "fat free" or "no cholesterol." Many people wonder if these claims are trustworthy. In fact, the FDA only allows claims on labels that are supported by scientific evidence. But even though claims that indicate lower cholesterol, lower sodium, or lower fat content are regulated, you still need to be cautious when reading them.

* Reduced fat has 25% less fat than the same regular brand.
* Light means the product has 50% less fat than the same regular product.
* Low fat means a product has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Even if a food is low in fat, the food may not necessarily be nutritious. Even a low-fat food may be high in sugar. Food companies may also make claims such as no cholesterol (meaning there is no animal fat used in making the product), but that does not necessarily mean the product is really low in fat.

Serving Size and Servings Per Container

At the top of each food label you'll see a serving size amount. The serving size is the amount of food a person would need to eat to get the amount of listed nutrients.

The servings per container or package tells you how many servings are in the whole package. So if one serving is 1 cup, and the entire package has 5 cups, there are five servings per package. These quantities are based on the amount people generally eat, and they are determined by the manufacturer. Serving sizes are not necessarily recommended amounts, but common ones.

Other nutritional information on the package is based on the listed serving size. So if there are two servings in the package, and you eat the entire package, then you must double all of the nutritional amounts listed.


A calorie is a unit of energy that measures how much energy a food provides to the body. The number given on the food label indicates how many calories are in one serving.

Calories From Fat

The second number, calories from fat, tells the total number of calories in one serving that comes from fat. The label lists fat so that people can monitor the amount of fat in their diets. Dietitians generally recommend that no more than 30% of calories come from fat over the course of the day. That means if the food you eat over the course of a day contains 2,000 calories total, no more than 600 of these calories should come from fat.

Percent Daily Values

Percent daily values are listed in the right-hand column in percentages, and they tell how much of a certain nutrient a person will get from eating one serving of that food. Ideally, the daily goal is to eat 100% of each of those nutrients. If a serving of a food has 18% protein, then that food is providing 18% of your daily protein needs if you eat 2,000 calories per day.

Percent daily value is most useful for determining whether a food is high or low in certain nutrients. If a food has 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered to be low in that nutrient. A food is considered a good source of a nutrient if the percentage is between 10% and 19%. If the food has more than 20% of the percent daily value, it is considered high in that nutrient.

Total Fat

This number indicates how much fat is in a single serving of food and is usually measured in grams. Although eating too much fat can lead to obesity and related health problems, our bodies do need some fat every day. Fats are an important source of energy - they contain twice as much energy per gram as carbohydrate or protein. Fats provide insulation and cushioning for the skin, bones, and internal organs. Fat also carries and helps store certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K). But because eating too much fat can contribute to health problems, including heart disease, adults and children older than age 2 should have no more than 30% of their daily calorie intake come from fat.

Saturated Fat and Trans Fat

The amount of saturated fat appears beneath total fat. Beginning in 2006, manufacturers will also be required by the FDA to list trans fats separately on the label, although some are already doing this now.

Saturated fats and trans fats are often called "bad fats" because they raise cholesterol and increase a person's risk for developing heart disease. Both saturated and trans fats are solid at room temperature (picture them clogging up arteries!). Saturated fat usually comes from animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and meats. Trans fats are naturally found in these foods, too. But they are also in vegetable oils that have been specially treated, or hydrogenated, so they are solid at room temperature - the fats in stick margarine, for example. Other foods that may contain trans fat include some cookies, crackers, fried foods, snack foods, and processed foods.

If the label does not list trans fat, look in the ingredient list for words such as "hydrogenated," "partially hydrogenated," or "shortening" to tip you off on whether the food contains trans fats.

It's recommended that saturated fats account for less than 10% of daily calorie intake. Trans fat intake should be as low as possible.

Unsaturated Fat

Unsaturated fats are also listed under total fat. These are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Foods high in unsaturated fat are vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Unsaturated fats are often called "good fats" because they don't raise cholesterol levels like saturated fats do.


Cholesterol is listed under the fat information - it's usually measured in milligrams. Cholesterol is important in producing vitamin D, some hormones, and in building many other important substances in the body. Cholesterol can become a problem if the amount in the blood is too high, though. This can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis, a blockage and hardening of arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke later in life.

Most of the cholesterol a person needs is manufactured by that person's liver. However, dietary sources such as meat and poultry, eggs, and whole-milk dairy products, also contribute to a person's cholesterol level.


Sodium, a component of salt, is listed on the Nutrition Facts label in milligrams. Small amounts of sodium are necessary for keeping proper body fluid balance. Sodium also helps with the transmission of electrical signals through nerves. Too much sodium can worsen water retention and high blood pressure in people who are sensitive to it. Almost all foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium. Sodium also adds flavor and helps preserve food. Many processed foods contain greater amounts of sodium.

Total Carbohydrate

This number, listed in grams, combines several types of carbohydrates: dietary fibers, sugars, and other carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are either simple (called sugars) or complex (called starches). Carbohydrates are the most abundant source of calories on earth. The best sources of carbohydrates are whole-grain cereals and breads and brown rice. Other sources include pastas, fruits, and vegetables. Carbohydrates should be a person's primary source of energy, providing 50% to 60% of total calorie intake per day.

Dietary Fiber

Listed under total carbohydrate, dietary fiber itself has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. High-fiber diets promote bowel regularity, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and can help reduce cholesterol levels.


Also listed under total carbohydrate on food labels, sugars are found in most foods. Foods such as whole-grain breads are high in complex carbohydrates and are part of a healthy diet. Fruits contain simple sugars but also contain fiber, water, and vitamins, which make them a healthy choice, too. Snack foods, candy, and soda, on the other hand, often have large amounts of added sugars. Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content in snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these "empty calories" usually contain few other nutrients.


This listing tells you how much protein is in a single serving of a food and is usually measured in grams. Most of the body - including muscles, skin, and the immune system - is made up of protein. If the body doesn't get enough fat and carbohydrates, it can use protein for energy. Foods high in protein include eggs, milk, meat, poultry, fish, cheese, yogurt, nuts, soybeans, and dried beans. Protein should make up about 10% to 20% of a person's daily calorie intake.

Vitamin A and Vitamin C

Vitamin A and vitamin C are two especially important vitamins, and that is why they are listed on the Nutrition Facts label. The amount for each vitamin in each serving is measured in percent daily values, so if a food has 80% of vitamin C, you're getting 80% of the vitamin C you need for the day. It's required that food companies list the amounts of vitamin A and C, and if they want to, they can also list the amounts of other vitamins. (Cereals often do this.)

Vitamin A usually appears first on a food label's list of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin A is important for good eyesight and helps maintain healthy skin. It's found in orange vegetables, such as carrots and squash, and in dark green, leafy vegetables. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, other fruits, and some vegetables. The body uses vitamin C to build and maintain connective tissues, heal wounds, and fight infections.

Calcium and Iron

The percentages of these two important minerals are listed here also and measured in percent daily values. Food companies are required to list the amounts of calcium and iron, and if they want to, they can also list the amount of other minerals. (Cereals often do this.)

Calcium has a lot of uses in the body, but it is best known for its role in building healthy bones and teeth. Milk and other dairy products are excellent calcium sources. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 500 milligrams of calcium per day, while 4- to 8-year-olds need 800 milligrams. The calcium requirement for children from 9 to 18 years jumps up to 1,300 milligrams per day - the equivalent of 4 to 4 1/2 cups (about 1 liter) of milk. It's easy to see why most teens in the United States don't get enough calcium every day, but remember that calcium can also be found in other foods as well, including fortified orange juice, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables.

Iron helps the body produce new, healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, so it's important to get plenty of iron. Teenage girls and women need extra iron to compensate for iron lost in the blood during menstruation. Red meat is the best source of iron, but it is also found in iron-fortified cereals, raisins, and dark green, leafy vegetables.

Calories Per Gram

These numbers show how many calories are in 1 gram of fat, carbohydrate, and protein. This information must be printed on every Nutrition Facts label for reference.

Label Listings for Avoiding Allergies

Food label information is not limited to claims, nutritional content, and fat amounts. Ingredients must also be listed. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, and this gives you an idea of how much of an ingredient the food contains in proportion to its overall weight.

Reading the ingredient list is especially important if someone in your family has a food allergy. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that up to 2 million, or 8%, of children in the United States are affected by food allergies, and that eight foods account for 90% of food allergy reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts.

In some cases, it's easy to identify what's safe to eat by checking the listed ingredients on a label. However, some ingredients that may trigger an allergy reaction may be listed under an unfamiliar name (for example, "arachis oil" is another term for peanut oil, which would need to be avoided by a person with a peanut allergy). A dietitian can give recommendations of what foods to avoid, as well as what hidden ingredients to beware of if your child has a food allergy.

Using Food Labels to Create a Well-Balanced Diet

As a parent, you can use food labels to your advantage by using them to plan nutritious and healthy meals for your children. The following tips will help you create healthy food choices using food labels.

* Offer your children a variety of foods. Insufficient amounts of nutrients can lead to deficiency and diseases. By giving your children a variety of healthy foods - including plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits - you can ensure that they take in a wide variety of nutrients. The U.S. government's 2005 dietary guidelines can help you plan healthy meals for your family.
* Choose a diet low in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Limit total fat intake to no more than 30% of total calories per day.
* Read serving size information. What looks like a small package of food can actually contain more than one serving.
* Eat sugar and sodium in moderation.
* Choose healthy snacks. Snacks such as potato chips and cheese puffs are high in calories, sodium, cholesterol, and fat, and low in vitamins and minerals. Healthy snacks should include fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads. "When people think of snacks," says Cindy Cunningham, a nutritionist, "they often think of junk food. But snacks can be leftovers from meals, servings of fruit or vegetables, and other foods with high nutrition."
* Be skeptical of low-fat junk food. If the fat has been eliminated or cut back, the amount of sugar in the food may have increased. Many low-fat foods have nearly as many calories as their full-fat versions.

Read all the labels on the foods you normally buy and use your new food label savvy to create a well-balanced diet. It may seem complicated at first, but by using food label information to select foods that are high in nutrients, you will make better food choices. Buying a variety of foods will go a long way in meeting your family's nutritional needs.
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