Food Labels

In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. This was a very positive move for consumers because, since 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required packaged foods to display labels giving key information about their contents. The labels must follow a specific format that is very consumer-friendly. The format gives the nutrient content of foods and indicates their relationship to a balanced diet. The label also provides an accurate ingredient listing while specifying all the ingredients in order, from most (by weight) to least. This list ensures all ingredients are disclosed in their full amounts.

The numbers on the Nutrition Facts Panel are based on one serving, and the label tells exactly what one serving means. It may mean one cup of yogurt, one-half cup of ice cream or fourteen crackers. It’s important to make note of the serving size so you know how many servings you are consuming. The servings on the food label are usually, but not always, exactly the same as Food Pyramid servings. The Nutrition Facts panel shows:

Percent Daily Values:

This information helps you evaluate whether a food is high, low, or moderate in fat, cholesterol, vitamins, and other nutrients. The amounts of all elements, except vitamins and minerals, are expressed in grams. The “Percent Daily Value” for vitamins is based on the Reference Daily Intake, a measure similar to, but not exactly the same as, Recommended Daily Allowances. The Reference Daily Intake is periodically updated as scientific studies provide more information about nutrition and health.

  • Serving size: This varies according to the item and does not always represent the typical amount consumed. For instance, the facts on a candy bar may be for one-third of the bar, meaning the bar is represented as being three servings.
  • Calories: These are the calories contained in a single serving, as described on the label itself.
  • Total fat: This is the fat, both saturated and unsaturated, contained in one serving.
  • Calories from fat: This represents the grams of fat, multiplied by 9 calories to give you the total calories from fat in the single serving.
  • Saturated fat: The amount of total fat that is saturated fat.
  • Cholesterol: This is the total cholesterol in one serving, expressed in grams.
  • Sodium: Expressed in milligrams.
  • Total Carbohydrates: The total carbohydrates in the single serving are expressed in grams.
  • Dietary fiber: Fiber is expressed in grams.
  • Sugars: Are all added together for a total count in grams.
  • Protein: Expressed in grams.
  • Vitamin A: Expressed as the percent of Daily Value
  • Vitamin C: Expressed as the percent of Daily Value
  • Calcium: Expressed as the percent of Daily Value
  • Iron: Expressed as the percent of Daily Value

Health claims:

Health claims, for both foods and vitamins, are strictly regulated by the FDA in order to protect the public from exaggerated or unproven claims or from health fraud. Manufacturers and food producers must go through a long and arduous process to get a health claim approved by the FDA. The claims must be backed up by valid scientific studies which are generally accepted by the scientific community. The health claims that are currently allowed are as follows:

Positive claims (using the product will contribute to health):

  • Calcium and bone density: A product that is truthfully high in calcium may state this on its label: “A diet high in calcium helps women maintain healthy bones and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.”
  • A high-fiber diet and a lower risk of heart attack: A label describing a food as “high fiber” may say “Foods high in dietary fiber may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
  • A fruit-and-vegetable-rich diet and a low risk of some kinds of cancer: Labels on fruits and vegetables may truthfully say: “A diet high in fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of some kinds of cancer.”
  • Folic acid (folate) and a lower risk of neural tube (spinal cord) birth defects, such as spina bifida: Labels on folate-rich foods may say, “A diet rich in folate during pregnancy lowers the risk of neural tube defect in the fetus.”
  • Soy protein and a lower risk of heart disease: A product that contains soy protein may say: “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Negative claims (reducing use will contribute to health):

  • A high-fat diet and a higher risk of cancer: A label describing a food as “low in fat” may say: “A diet low in fat reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.”
  • A diet high in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and a higher risk of heart disease: A label describing a food as “low-fat, “low cholesterol” or “no fat, no cholesterol” may say: “This food follows the recommendations of the American Heart Association’s diet to lower the risk of heart disease.”
  • Sodium and hypertension (high blood pressure): A label describing a food as “low-sodium” may say: “A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.”

Specific terms defined under the law

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act defines the following nutrition terms so the consumer can count on a consistent meaning of these words.

High means one serving provides 20% or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient. This can also be expressed as an “excellent source” of a particular nutrient.

Good source means one serving gives you 10 to 19% of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.

Light or Lite means the product has one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat or sodium than generally found in that specific type of product.

Low means a food contains an amount of a nutrient that allows you to eat several servings without going over the Daily Value for that nutrient:

  • Low-calorie means 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low-fat means 3 grams of fat or less
  • Low-saturated fat means 1 gram or less
  • Low-cholesterol means 20 milligrams or less

Free means “negligible”, but not “none”:

  • Calorie-free means fewer than 5 calories per serving
  • Fat-free means less than 0.5 grams of fat
  • Cholesterol-free means less than 2 mg of cholesterol
  • Sodium-free means less than 5 mg of sodium
  • Sugar-free means less than 0.5 grams of sugar

Customizing the food labels to your daily calorie needs:

The right hand column of dietary food labels shows the percentages of each element. These percentages are based on the recommended rates of consumption for a dietary allowance of 2,000 calories a day.

The USDA recommends:

  • 60% of calories from carbohydrates
  • 10% of calories from protein
  • 30% of calories from fats

If your daily food allowance is not exactly 2,000 calories, some quick calculations will help you find what each serving means to you:

Example A

A serving contains five grams of fat, 8% of the 65 grams allowed in a 2000 calorie diet. If you eat 2800 calories a day, then five grams of fat is 5% of your allowance.

Example B

If you eat 1,800 calories a day, multiply the standard fat allowance by 90% and you get 58 grams. Five grams is about 11% of the fat you can eat that day.

Example C

If you eat 2,400 calories a day, multiply the standard fat allowance by 120% and you get 78 grams. The five-gram serving is slightly more than 6% of that daily allowance.

Bottom of the label:

The bottom of the label gives some good general information. A table shows the recommended amount of each element for both 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. Note for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, the label recommends “not more than” certain amounts. It is best to stay below these levels. The amounts indicated for carbohydrates and fiber are also good benchmarks.

The very bottom of the label gives calories per grams of the three major food categories. Note that one gram of fat contains nearly twice the calories of one gram of carbohydrate or protein.

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Information expires December 2024.