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How to Read a Food Label

Zoe Schilling

PharmD. Candidate, 2022

8/24/21



Serving Information

(#1 on sample label)



When looking at the Nutrition Facts label, first take a look at the number of servings in the package (servings per container) and the serving size. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams (g). The serving size reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink. It is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.


It’s important to realize that all the nutrient amounts shown on the label, including the number of calories, refer to the size of the serving. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. For example, you might ask yourself if you are consuming ½ serving, 1 serving, or more. In the sample label, one serving of lasagna equals 1 cup. If you ate two cups, you would be consuming two servings. That is two times the calories and nutrients shown in the sample label, so you would need to double the nutrient and calorie amounts, as well as the %DVs, to see what you are getting in two servings.


Calories

(#2 on sample label)




Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. In the example, there are 280 calories in one serving of lasagna. What if you ate the entire package? Then, you would consume 4 servings, or 1,120 calories.

To achieve or maintain a healthy body weight, balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses. 2,000 calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice. Your calorie needs may be higher or lower and vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. Learn your estimated calorie needs at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/resources/MyPlatePlan.


Remember: The number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat. Eating too many calories per day is linked to overweight and obesity.


Nutrients

(#3 on sample label)



Look at section 3 in the sample label. It shows you some key nutrients that impact your health. You can use the label to support your personal dietary needs – look for foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of the nutrients you may want to limit.

  • Nutrients to get less of: Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars.

Saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars are nutrients listed on the label that may be associated with adverse health effects – and Americans generally consume too much of them, according to the recommended limits for these nutrients. They are identified as nutrients to get less of. Eating too much saturated fat and sodium, for example, is associated with an increased risk of developing some health conditions, like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Consuming too much added sugars can make it hard to meet important nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits.


What are Added Sugars and How are they Different from Total Sugars?

Total Sugars on the Nutrition Facts label includes sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods and beverages, such as sugar in milk and fruit as well as any added sugars that may be present in the product. No Daily Reference Value has been established for total sugars because no recommendation has been made for the total amount to eat in a day.

Added Sugars on the Nutrition Facts label include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. Diets high in calories from added sugars can make it difficult to meet daily recommended levels of important nutrients while staying within calorie limits.

Note: Having the word “includes” before Added Sugars on the label indicates that Added Sugars are included in the number of grams of Total Sugars in the product.

For example, a container of yogurt with added sweeteners, might list:


This means that the product has 7 grams of Added Sugars and 8 grams of naturally occurring sugars – for a total of 15 grams of sugar.

  • Nutrients to get more of: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.

Dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron ad potassium are nutrients on the label that Americans generally do not get the recommended amount of. They are identified as nutrients to get more of. Eating a diet high in dietary fiber can increase the frequency of bowel movements, lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and reduce calorie intake. Diets higher in vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, anemia, and high blood pressure.


Remember: You can use the label to support your personal dietary needs—choose foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of the nutrients you may want to limit.


The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

(#4 on sample label)



The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. The Daily Values are reference amounts (expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms) of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day.


The %DV shows how much a nutrient in a serving of a food contributes to a total daily diet.

The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.


Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to use the %DV? No, because the label (the %DV) does the math for you! It helps you interpret the nutrient numbers (grams, milligrams, or micrograms) by putting them all on the same scale for the day (0-100%DV).


The %DV column doesn't add up vertically to 100%. Instead, the %DV is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. It can tell you if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient and whether a serving of the food contributes a lot, or a little, to your daily diet for each nutrient. Note: some nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label, like total sugars and trans fat, do not have a %DV – they will be discussed later.


General Guide to %DV

  • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low

  • 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high

More often, choose foods that are:

  • Higher in %DV for Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium

  • Lower in %DV for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

Example: Look at the amount of sodium in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label. Is %DV of 37% contributing a lot or a little to your diet? Check the General Guide to %DV. This product contains 37% DV for sodium, which shows that this is a HIGH sodium product (it has more than 20% DV for sodium). If you consumed 2 servings, that would provide 74% of the DV for sodium – nearly three-quarters of an entire day’s worth of sodium.


Dual-Column Labels

For certain products that are larger than a single serving but that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings, manufacturers will have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate the amounts of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package” or “per unit” basis. The purpose of this type of dual-column labeling is to allow people to easily identify how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package/unit at one time. For example, a bag of pretzels with 3 servings per container might have a label that looks like this to show you how many calories and other nutrients would be in one serving and in one package (3 servings).




Single-Ingredient Sugar labels

Packages and containers of products such as pure honey, pure maple syrup, or packages of pure sugar are not required to include a declaration of the number of grams of Added Sugars in a serving of the product but must still include a declaration of the percent Daily Value for Added Sugars. Manufacturers are encouraged, but not required, to use the “†” symbol immediately following the Added Sugars percent Daily Value on single-ingredient sugars, which would lead to a footnote explaining the amount of added sugars that one serving of the product contributes to the diet as well as the contribution of a serving of the product toward the percent Daily Value for Added Sugars. Single-ingredient sugars and syrups are labeled in this way so that it does not look like more sugars have been added to the product and to ensure that consumers have information about how a serving of these products contributes to the Daily Value for added sugars and to their total diet.

Here is an example of how a label on a single-ingredient sugar, such as honey, could look.





If you need further help with the basics of reading a nutrition label, book an appointment or free consultation with Zoe today!


Reference:


Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label. Accessed August 24, 2021.


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