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Comprehending Food Labels

Learn how to properly read a food label and make use of its information.

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Learn how to read food labels

Comprehending Food Labels

Learning how to properly read food labels enables you to make smarter nutrition choices on the foods that you buy. The food label provides you with relevant information on essential nutrients and ingredients. It is well worth your time to learn how to interpret food labels and how to put them to work for you and your health!

What Is on the Food Label?
The two leading U.S. food label authorities are the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The FSIS regulates labeling on meat and poultry products, while the FDA regulates the labeling and ingredients of just about all other food products.

Food labels are required on most prepared foods such as bread, cereal, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, and drinks. Nutrition labeling is voluntary on fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish. Nutrition labels are not required on foods that contain few significant nutrients, such as coffee and tea, or on certain ready-to-eat foods such as unpackaged deli foods, bakery items, and restaurant foods.

Food labels contain up to four different types of useful nutritional information to help you make healthier choices:

  1. The Nutrition Facts Panel is the square box on the food label that provides detailed information on calories and essential nutrients such as fat, sodium, cholesterol, fiber, and several vitamins and minerals. The Nutrition Facts Panel is required on almost all food labels.
  2. The ingredient list that appears on packaged foods provides a detailed overview of product ingredients. The ingredient list must appear on all foods labels of foods with more than one ingredient.
  3. Nutrition claims or nutrition descriptions can help you to quickly and easily find foods that meet your specific nutritional goals. These include claims such as "low fat," "cholesterol free," "high fiber," and "low sodium." Nutrition claims are not required on labels.
  4. Health claims describe the potential health benefits of a specific food or nutrient within the food. These include claims such as that for calcium, which states its benefit for reducing osteoporosis, or folic acid, which reduces the risk of neural tube birth defects. Health claims are not required on labels.
The Nutrition Facts Panel
The Nutrition Facts Panel provides key nutritional information. At its top is the serving size, servings per container, calories per serving, and calories from fat. Below that is a list of the three macronutrients as well as other important nutrients. These nutrients are listed in grams or milligrams.

Below those are listed a few micronutrients, two vitamins, and two minerals, which are displayed in percentages. On the right side of the label is a column headed "Percent Daily Value." Near the bottom of the label is a footnote stating that the Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet that includes a list of Daily Reference Values.

Serving Size
The place to start when looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are provided in familiar units, such as cups, tablespoons, or pieces, followed by the metric measure. The serving sizes are based on the amounts of food that people normally eat, making it more realistic and easier to compare with similar foods. The serving size is the first item you should look at; all the nutrition information on the label pertains to the serving size stated on the label.

ALERT! Be aware that if you purchase a product because you feel it is low in a nutrient such as fat or calories, you should make sure the serving size is an amount you will realistically eat. If you don't follow the serving size, it may not be low in that nutrient anymore.

On the sample label shown above, the serving size is 1/2 cup, and there are four servings per container. That means that all the information pertains to 1/2 cup. If you ate the whole container, you would need to multiply all of the information on the label by four.

Calories and Calories from Fat
Calories per serving measures how much energy you would receive from a single serving of a food. The label also provides the number of calories in one serving that come from fat. In the example label, there are 90 calories in a serving, and there are 30 calories from fat. This means that out of the total 90 calories per serving, 30 (or a third of them) are coming from fat. We know that calories in food only come from three sources: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. So this also tells you that the other 60 calories are coming from protein and/or carbohydrate sources. Now, if you ate the whole package, you would consume a total of four servings of the food, or 360 calories, with 120 calories from fat.

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