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Medicine LibreTexts

1.16: Discovering Nutrition Facts

Skills to Develop

  • Use the Nutrition Facts panel to discover the nutritional information of food.

The Labels on Your Food

Understanding the significance of dietary guidelines and how to use DRIs in planning your nutrient intakes can make you better equipped to select the right foods the next time you go to the supermarket.

In the United States, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passed in 1990 and came into effect in 1994. In Canada, mandatory labeling came into effect in 2005. As a result, all packaged foods sold in the United States and Canada must have nutrition labels that accurately reflect the contents of the food products. There are several mandated nutrients and some optional ones that manufacturers or packagers include. The FDA oversees mandatory labeling of foods. Table 1.16.1 lists the mandatory and optional inclusions. These are regulated but the FDA.

Table 1.16.1: Mandatory and Optional Inclusions on Nutrition Labels
Mandatory Inclusion Optional Inclusion
Total Calories Calories from saturated fats
Calories from fat Polyunsaturated fat
Total fat Monounsaturated fat
Saturated fat Potassium
Cholesterol Soluble fiber
Total carbohydrates Sugar alcohol
Dietary fiber Other carbohydrates
Sugars Percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene
Vitamins A and C Other essential vitamins and minerals
Calcium  
Iron  
Source: US Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling Guide.” Last updated August 3, 2016. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006828.htm

There are other types of information that are required by law to appear somewhere on the consumer packaging. They include:

  • Name and address of the manufacturer, packager, or distributor
  • Statement of identity, what the product actually is
  • Net contents of the package: weight, volume, measure, or numerical count
  • Ingredients, listed in descending order by weight
  • Nutrient information of serving size and daily values 

The Nutrition Facts panel provides a wealth of information about the nutritional content of the product. The information also allows shoppers to compare products. Because the serving sizes are included on the label, you can see how much of each nutrient is in each serving to make the comparisons. Knowing how to read the label is important because of the way some foods are presented. For example, a bag of peanuts at the grocery store may seem like a healthy snack to eat on the way to class. But have a look at that label. Does it contain one serving or multiple servings? Unless you are buying the individual serving packages, chances are the bag you picked up is at least eight servings, if not more.

According to the 2010 health and diet survey released by the FDA, 54 percent of first-time buyers of a product will check the food label and will use this information to evaluate fat, calorie, vitamin, and sodium content.US Food and Drug Administration. “Survey Shows Gain in Food-Label Use, Health/Diet Awareness.” March 2, 2010. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm202611.htm#FoodLabelHighlights. The survey also notes that more Americans are using food labels and are showing an increased awareness of the connection between diet and health. Having reliable food labels is a top priority of the FDA, which has a new initiative to prepare guidelines for the food industry to construct “front of package” labeling that will make it even easier for Americans to choose healthy foods. Stay tuned for the newest on food labeling by visiting the FDA website: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm.

Interactive Link 1.16.1: The Food Label and You.

The FDA has prepared a new video about nutrition labeling that is packed with helpful information. You can watch the full-length video or individual segments. https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/labelingnutrition/ucm275409.htm#fullvideo

Reading the Label

On May 20, 2016, the FDA announced the new Nutrition Facts Panel. In the figure below, the original label and the new format label are shown.  We will compare and contrast both labels because we are a transition phase between the original label and the new format label. You may have seen a few packages with the new label, while most continue to carry the original label.

Both Nutrition Facts panels give you information on the serving size and how many servings are in the container. The new format has expanded the size of this area. For example, a label on a box of crackers might tell you that twenty crackers equal one serving and that the whole box contains 10 servings. All other values listed thereafter, from the calories to the dietary fiber, are based on this one serving. On the panel, the serving size is followed by the number of calories and then a list of selected nutrients.

You will also see “Percent Daily Value” on the far right-hand side. With the new label, the Daily Value (DV) has been updated so the values on the original label do not match the new label even though the calories, serving size and servings per package are the same. The % DV helps you determine if the food is or is not a good source of a particular nutrient. The DV represents the recommended amount of a given nutrient based on the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) and DRI of that nutrient in a 2,000-kilocalorie diet. Daily reference values (DRV) is set for all nutrients. The percentage of DV represents the proportion of the total daily recommended amount that you will get from one serving of the food. The DV is not age specific or gender specific. For example, on the food label in Figure 1.16.1, the percent DV of calcium for one serving is 20 percent, which means that one serving provides 20 percent of the daily recommended calcium intake. 

Several nutrients have been dropped from the label - vitamin A and C because these are no longer low in the American diet.  Added to the new label is "added sugar."  This number reflects the amount of sugar or sugar-like substances the manufacturer added to the package.

Here is a website with more explanation: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm  

 

Figure 1.16.1: Determining Your Nutrient Allowances per Day. Pictured here is a sample label. Source: FDA. “Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.” Last updated June 19, 2017. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm#images

 

Generally, a percent DV of 5 is considered low and a percent DV of 20 is considered high. This means, as a general rule, for fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium, look for foods with a low percent DV. Alternatively, when concentrating on essential mineral or vitamin intake, look for a high percent DV. To figure out your fat allowance remaining for the day after consuming one serving, look at the percent DV for fat, which is 18 percent, and subtract it from 100 percent. To know this amount in grams of fat, read the footnote of the food label to find that the recommended maximum amount of fat grams to consume per day for a 2,000 kilocalories per day diet is 65 grams. Eighteen percent of sixty-five equals about 12 grams. This means that 53 grams of fat are remaining in your fat allowance. Remember, to have a healthy diet the recommendation is to eat less than this amount of fat grams per day, especially if you want to lose weight.

Table 1.16.2: DVs Based on a Caloric Intake of 2,000 Calories (For Adults and Children Four or More Years of Age)
Food Component DV
Total fat 78 g
Saturated fat 20 g
Cholesterol 300 mg
Sodium 2,300 mg
Potassium 4,700 mg
Total carbohydrate 275 g
Dietary fiber 28 g
Protein 50 g
Added Sugar 50 g
Calcium 1,300 mg
Iron 18 mg
Vitamin D 20 mcg
Source: FDA, https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

Of course, this is a lot of information to put on a label and some products are too small to accommodate it all. In the case of small packages, such as small containers of yogurt, candy, or fruit bars, permission has been granted to use an abbreviated version of the Nutrition Facts panel. To learn additional details about all of the information contained within the Nutrition Facts panel, see the following website:  https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

Video Link 1.16.2: How to Read Food Labels.

 

Claims on Labels

In addition to mandating nutrients and ingredients that must appear on food labels, any nutrient-content claims must meet certain requirements. For example, a manufacturer cannot claim that a food is fat-free or low-fat if it is not, in reality, fat-free or low-fat. Low-fat indicates that the product has three or fewer grams of fat; low salt indicates there are fewer than 140 milligrams of sodium, and low-cholesterol indicates there are fewer than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and two grams of saturated fat. See Table 1.16.3 for some examples.US Food and Drug Administration. “Additional Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims.” Appendix B in Food Labeling Guide (August 2016).  https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006828.htm

Table 1.16.3: Common Label Terms Defined
Nutrient Content Claim What the Claim Means Per Serving

High (rich in, excellent source)

20% or more of the Daily Value

Good

10% to 19% of the Daily Value

More

Contains at least 10% more of the Daily Value for vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, or potassium.*

Light

Has at least ⅓ fewer calories or 50% less fat.* If more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more.

Less or fewer

Has 25% less of a nutrient or of calories

Calorie Claims

 

Calorie free

Less than 5 calories

Low calorie

40 calories or less

Reduced calories

At least 25% fewer calories*

Sugar Claims

 

Sugar-free

Less than 0.5 gram sugars

Reduced sugar

At least 25% less sugar*

Fiber Claims (If food is not low in total fat, the label must state total fat in conjunction with the fiber claims.)

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*

Sodium Claims

 

Sodium free or salt-free

Less than 5 milligrams sodium

Very low sodium

35 milligrams of sodium or less

Low sodium

140 milligrams of sodium or less

Reduced sodium

At least 25% less sodium*

Light in sodium

At least 50% less sodium

Salt-free

Less than 5 milligrams sodium

Fat Claims

 

Fat-free

Less than 0.5 gram fat

Low fat

3 grams or less total fat

Reduced fat

At least 25% less fat than the regular version

Saturated Fat Claims

 

Saturated fat-free

Less than 0.5 gram saturated fat and less than 0.5 gram trans fatty acids

Low in saturated fat

1 gram or less saturated fat & no more than 15% calories from saturated fat

Reduced saturated fat

At least 25% less saturated fat* and reduced by more than 1 gram fat

Note: Trans-fat has no FDA-defined nutrient content claims.

Cholesterol Claims

 

Cholesterol free

Less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat

Low cholesterol

20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat

Reduced cholesterol

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

Lean Claims

 

Lean

Contains less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol

Extra lean

Contains less than 5 grams total fat, less than 2 grams saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol

*compared to the reference, or regular, food this would replace

Health Claims

Often we hear news of a particular nutrient or food product that contributes to our health or may prevent disease. A health claim is a statement that links a particular food with a reduced risk of developing a disease. As such, health claims such as “reduces heart disease,” must be evaluated by the FDA before it may appear on packaging. Prior to the passage of the NLEA products that made such claims were categorized as drugs and not food. All health claims must be substantiated by scientific evidence in order for it to be approved and put on a food label. To avoid having companies making false claims, laws also regulate how health claims are presented on food packaging. In addition to the claim being backed up by scientific evidence, it may never claim to cure or treat the disease. For a detailed list of approved health claims, visit: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/default.htm

Qualified Health Claims

While health claims must be backed up by hard scientific evidence, qualified health claims have supportive evidence, which is not as definitive as with health claims. The evidence may suggest that the food or nutrient is beneficial. Wording for this type of claim may look like this: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [X] grams of EPA and DHA omega-3  fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.]US Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Announces Qualified Health Claims for Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” December 14, 2014. https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/labelingnutrition/ucm073992.htm

Structure/Function Claims

Some companies claim that certain foods and nutrients have benefits for health even though no scientific evidence exists. In these cases, food labels are permitted to claim that you may benefit from the food because it may boost your immune system, for example. There may not be claims of diagnosis, cures, treatment, or disease prevention, and there must be a disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated the claim.US Food and Drug Administration. “Claims That Can Be Made for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements.” April 2016. https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/labelingnutrition/ucm111447.htm.

Allergy Warnings

Food manufacturers are required by the FDA to list on their packages if the product contains any of the eight most common ingredients that cause food allergies. These eight common allergens are as follows: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. (More information on these allergens will be discussed elsewhere). The FDA does not require warnings that cross contamination may occur during packaging, however, most manufacturers include this advisory as a courtesy. For instance, you may notice a label that states, “This product is manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts.” If you have food allergies, it is best to avoid products that may have been contaminated with the allergen.

Key Takeaways

  • The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act made it a law that foods sold in the United States have a food label that provides the accurate contents of nutrients within them. Canada has a similar law.
  • A Nutrition Facts panel gives information on a number of servings per container, the amount of calories per serving, and the amounts of certain nutrients.
  • The percent DV is the percentage of the amount of the nutrient in the food in relationship to its recommended intake. It is a guide to help you determine if a food is a good or poor source of nutrients.
  • To keep companies from making false claims, the FDA provides regulation for food manufacturers in putting labels on packages that promote health. Allergens must also be listed on food labels. Sometimes cross contamination does occur during packaging. Most food manufacturers voluntarily list this information. If you have a food allergy, it is best to avoid any product that has even had the possibility of coming in contact with a known allergen.

Discussion Starter

  1. Recall the food you buy from the supermarket on a regular basis. How many of the food products you purchase regularly are nutrient-dense? How many are nutrient-poor? What foods can you substitute in place of the nutrient-poor food choices?