All About Food Labels

Ever wonder what you're really eating in that buttery snack cracker, sugary canned fruit, or slice of processed cheese? It's easy to find out. Just read the Nutrition Facts on the product's food label.

What Are the 'Nutrition Facts' on the Food Label?

The Nutrition Facts section is located on the outside of the package and is easy to read. This section of the food label gives you information about specific nutrients in the product, including:

  • Calories
  • Fats
  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • Specific vitamins and minerals

Serving Size: An Important Part of Food Labels

At the top of the Nutrition Facts section, you'll see the serving size (such as 1/2 cup, five crackers, or 10 chips) and servings per container (such as two, four, six). The food label then lists the number of calories, grams of fat, grams of saturated and trans fat, etc., per serving. New changes to food labels will also contain the calories for the whole package or unit of food for items that may be consumed in one sitting.

These numbers are important, especially if you aim to eat a diet lower in calories, sodium, and fat. For example, having five Ritz crackers at 80 calories per serving sounds okay, but what about their nutritional value? The label tells you it has no fiber or any of the key nutrients: vitamins A or C, iron and calcium.

You'll notice different units of measurement on food labels. Many of the nutrients are measured in grams or "g," while others are measured in milligrams or "mg." Some information is given in percentages (%).

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Fats and Other Nutrients

Along with calories per serving, the Nutrition Facts gives you the amount of other nutrients and total fat. It then breaks the total fat number down into saturated fat and trans fat -- the unhealthy fats that can increase the risk of heart disease.

For some products, the total fat number is also broken down into polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat, which are healthy fats more beneficial to your health.

Let's look at what these terms mean:

  • Cholesterol is found mainly in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines no longer recommend limiting cholesterol in the diet, due to a lack of evidence that dietary cholesterol - that from meat and dairy products, for example -- raises cholesterol in the blood.
  • Saturated fat comes primarily from foods of animal origin such as dairy products, meat, butter, cheeses, poultry, and luncheon meats. It is also found in tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. Choose nonfat or low-fat dairy, lean meats, and skinless poultry to reduce saturated fat intake. Too much saturated fat can raise the cholesterol level in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Trans fats are formed during the process of "partial hydrogenation," a manufacturing technique that turns liquid oils into partially solid products. These fats can be found in some vegetable shortening, margarine, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods. Eating too many trans fats raises the cholesterol level in the blood. As of 2015, the FDA no longer considers partially hydrogenated oils as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), so they are being phased out of products by 2018.
  • Polyunsaturated fat comes from many plant foods, nuts, seeds, some plant oils (sunflower, corn, soybean), some seafood (herring, salmon, mackerel,
  • halibut), and soybeans. Polyunsaturated fat is a healthy fat and includes heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Monounsaturated fat comes from some plant foods, including olives and olive oil, canola oil, peanuts, and avocados. New research suggests that these fats help reduce your risk of heart disease.

After fats, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, and protein are listed on the food label. These items are followed by specific nutrients in the food, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. New label guidelines will replace vitamins A and C with vitamin D and potassium and list added sugars on the panel. Last, the food label lists the ingredients in the product.

What Are 'Daily Values' on a Food Label?

To the right of the "Nutrition Facts" are the Daily Value percentages. The Percent (%) Daily Value indicates how much of a certain nutrient one serving of the food contains, compared to the recommended amount someone who consumes 2000 calories should have for the entire day. It is considered general nutrition advice that is not individualized. For example, some very active teens may need as much as 3000 calories per day.

The percentages next to each nutrient -- such as fat, sodium, fiber, protein -- can help you determine whether a food is "high" or "low" in that nutrient. And 5% or less is considered to be "low," while 20% or higher is "high." For example, the Dietary Fiber is 0%, or "low," in Ritz crackers.

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Sample Nutrition Facts

Here is a sample Nutrition Facts label (for Ritz Crackers):

Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), soybean oil, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, salt, leavening (baking soda, calcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin (emulsifier), natural flavor, cornstarch.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 5 Crackers (16g)

Servings Per Container: About 28

Amount per Serving

Calories: 80 Calories From Fat: 40

% Daily Value*

Total Fat: 4.5g 7%

Saturated Fat: 1g 5%

Trans Fat: 0g

Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g

Monounsaturated Fat: 1g

Cholesterol: 0mg 0%

Sodium: 135 mg 6%

Total Carbohydrate:10g 3%

Dietary Fiber: 0g 0%

Sugars: 1g

Protein: 1g

Vitamin A: 0% Vitamin C: 0%

Calcium: 0% Iron: 0%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower, depending on your calorie needs.

Avoiding Marketing Hype

As you get used to reading food labels, you'll realize that some manufacturers try to fool consumers.

Some packages say "all natural." But if the products are high in sugar or saturated fat, "all natural" means nothing! The FDA has no definition for natural so it is up to the manufacturer. If a food label says "low-fat," read the Nutrition Facts to see if it's really a healthy choice. Many times, a low-fat food is still high in sugar or low in nutrition.

Boosting Key Nutrients

It's important to choose foods that are nutrient-rich or have a high nutrient density. That means food with:

  • Substantial levels of vitamins, minerals, and fiber
  • Limited saturated and trans fats
  • Low levels of sodium, and sugar

Limit these nutrients: Saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars. Eating too many of these may increase your risk of heart disease and leave you with less energy. Aim for more healthy mono- or polyunsaturated fats.

Get plenty of these nutrients: fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron. Eating plenty of these nutrients can boost your immune function and overall health. Fiber is important to promote healthy bowel function, while calcium and Vitamin D build strong bones and prevent fractures. Vitamin A and C are important for staying well.

By reading the Nutrition Facts, you can be sure you're getting the nutrients you need each day. For instance, if a food has 30% of the Daily Value of calcium, you know you will need to eat a few more food sources of calcium (like milk, cheese, and yogurt) to reach 100% daily value of calcium for the day. If a food provides 20% of the Daily Value of protein, you'll need to make other protein selections during the day to ensure 100% of the Daily Value of protein.

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Words of Warning About Food Labels

Food labels must state if the product contains ingredients that contain protein from the eight main allergenic foods. These include:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

The label might say "Contains milk" or "Contains peanuts." This is lifesaving information for people allergic to these foods.

The bottom line: read the Nutrition Facts on your food labels. Let food labels work for you as you establish healthful eating habits.

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