The facts about nutrition labels: How to use them and how they may change

Woman studying a product label in the grocery

It's great to have a wide selection of foods when you go to the grocery store. But with so many choices, how do you know which ones are healthiest for you? The key is the nutrition facts label. It's filled with good information about what's inside that box, bottle, bag or can.

What is a nutrition label?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), decide what goes on the food label. All food labels have to show the same nutrition and health information. That way, you can compare different foods and make your best choice. The FDA and USDA also regulate health claims on food labels. When a food says "low fat," it must meet strict guidelines to make the claim.

For some people, the information on the label can be lifesaving. People with allergies can find out if a food contains something they're allergic to. That can help them prevent a serious reaction. People with diabetes can get information on sugar content. And people on a low-salt diet can see how much sodium is in the food.

While the labels contain useful facts, they can be confusing. Here are some tips to help you use the labels to make better choices.

Understanding nutrition facts labels

The information on the labels can help you eat a healthier and more balanced diet. As the FDA explains, the label gives you 2 kinds of information. One part is product-specific. It includes serving size, calories and nutrients. These are different with each food product. The other part includes daily values. These are percentages that show the nutrition an average person will get from eating 1 serving. The percentage of daily value is a general guide. It can help you see if a food is high or low in a nutrient. 5% or less is low, 20% or more is high.

The daily value percentage is based on a person who eats 2,000 calories a day. You may need more or fewer depending on your age, size and activity level. But the percentage of daily value is still a helpful gauge.

Check the serving size first

When you're choosing a food, be sure you know the serving size. Everything else on the label, such as calories, is based on that amount. And it may be much smaller than you think. For example, you might assume that a frozen potpie would be for 1 person. But the label may call it 2 servings. If you ate the whole pie, you'd get twice the nutrients—and calories—listed for 1 serving. Or, you may think a typical bowl of cereal is 1 serving. The serving size listed, however, could be as small as half a cup.

Calories count

This top part of the label also lists the calories in 1 serving. For example, the label may indicate 1 serving equals 3 cookies and has 100 calories. If you eat 6 cookies, then that's 2 servings and 200 calories.

Also, keep in mind that fat free doesn't mean calorie free. Lower fat items may have just as many calories as full-fat versions. The label also shows you how many calories come from fat. For most people, only about 30% of their calories should come from fat.

What are fats, cholesterol and sodium?

The label also lists facts about nutrients you should limit. These include fats, cholesterol and sodium. Eating too much may increase your risk of heart disease, cancers, and high blood pressure. The goal is to stay below 100% of the daily value for these nutrients every day. Choose foods that are lowest in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.

If you have a health condition, your doctor may tell you to limit some ingredients even more. Some people with high blood pressure should limit the sodium, or salt, they eat. This label information can help you keep it in check.

Pick the healthiest carbohydrates

Carbohydrates include sugars and fiber, and are also listed on the label. Try to limit foods with added sugars. These may be listed as sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup or maple syrup. They add calories but no other nutrients.

Healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are good choices. They can lower the risk of heart disease and help your digestive system1. Whole grains are a good source of fiber. You can't always tell which foods are made from whole grains by their names. Some that are called "multi-grain," for example, may not contain whole grains. You need to look for the whole grain named first in the ingredients list. Whole wheat, brown rice, and whole oats are a few to watch for.

Get your proteins, vitamins and minerals

Labels can also help you choose more foods with healthy ingredients. Many Americans don't get enough vitamins, calcium and iron. They should choose brands with a higher percentage of daily value for these nutrients. Try to get the most nutrition you can for the calories.

The FDA says most Americans get plenty of protein, but not always from the healthiest foods. Foods high in protein include meat, poultry, dry beans, milk, and milk products. Check the labels to find foods that are lean, low-fat or fat free.

Sources:

  1. “Carbohydrates,” American Heart Association, last accessed January 7, 2020, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates, opens new window