The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has mandated food labels entitled "Nutrition Facts" on all commercially packaged foods. The labels are in chart form on most food packages. However, on smaller food items, such as food bars, the information may be compressed into paragraph form. Understanding the food labels can enhance your ability to make the most beneficial choices about which foods to purchase and how much of them to consume. The following reveal how to interpret the different sections of the food label.
Serving Size: It is important to pay attention to serving size, as the food label provides nutritional information for just one serving. For a given type of food, the serving size is usually standardized (e.g. 8 fluid ounces for juices, milk, and other non-alcoholic drinks). A food package may contain one or more serving. So if you consume the whole package, you have to multiply the amount of any food component listed on the food label by the number of servings you actually consume. The following are some examples:
- A 16 fl oz bottle of Snapple All-Natural Lemon Tea contains 2 servings, each of which has 80 calories. If you drink the whole bottle, that’s 160 calories.
- An 8 oz bag of Lay‘s potato chips contains 8 servings, each of which has 150 calories. And who can put the bag down after eating one ounce? The entire bag contains 1,200 calories.
- Edy‘s Rich and Creamy chocolate ice cream contains 150 calories per half-cup serving, 90 of which are from fat. Who really eats just a half-cup? A full cup contains 300 calories
- A can of Campbell‘s chicken noodle soup contains 2.5 half-cup servings, each of which contains 890 mg of sodium. If you eat the whole can, that‘s 2,670mg of sodium, well over the maximum recommended daily limit of 2,300mg. Excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, with it‘s host of associated health problems.
Calories: We all need calories to stay alive and healthy and to fuel our daily activities, but in our modern society, with much of our physical work and transportation carried out by machinery, and with tempting, inexpensive food ever present, overweight and obesity have become major societal problems. Therefore, many of us have to make at least some effort not to overeat. The calories listed on the food label can help us with that.
The number of calories per serving shown on a food label only has meaning if you know approximately how many calories your body needs per day. The Mayo Clinic, a world-class medical institution, provides an on-line tool for estimating your daily caloric requirement. Since this provides only a rough measure, the best way to fine-tune your caloric needs is to see if the number of calories you consume provides stability in your bodyweight. If you are gaining weight, you are taking in more calories than you consume. If you are losing weight, you are taking in fewer calories than you consume.
Weighing yourself every morning before you eat or drink helps you keep track of your bodyweight changes. Fluctuations of 1-2 lb per day are normal and are usually due to changes in hydration (body water content). If you eat salty food, you are likely to retain excess water. If you perspire a lot from heavy exercise, you are likely to have a body-water deficit.
Calories from Fat: There are various opinions about what percentage of our calories should come from fat, generally ranging from 25-35%. The food labels recommend a limit of about 30% of calories from fat. Therefore, you should be cautious about eating foods that have a high percentage of fat, particularly saturated fat. You can calculate the proportion of calories from fat by dividing the calories from fat by the total calories. For example, in one Oscar-Meyer Jumbo Beef Frank there are 170 calories, 130 of which are from fat. 130/170 equals 0.76, or 76%! In addition, a single frank contains 590mg of sodium. Clearly, hot-dogs should be eaten only occasionally, if at all.
Total Fat: In the Total Fat chart row, grams of fat per serving are listed on the left and percent of daily value is listed on the right. The percentage represents the proportion that serving contains of the maximum fat you should consume daily. This row does not distinguish among the different types of fat. Since fats vary greatly as to their effect on health, it is important to examine the listings below of the specific fats.
Saturated Fat: This type of fat is most closely associated with heart disease and other health problems. Thus the amount you take in should thus be limited. The food labels indicate limiting saturated fat to 9% of your total caloric intake. Our main sources of saturated fat are animal fat from meat and milk fat from dairy products. Two-percent milk might sound low-fat because that is the percentage of total weight including water weight. However, that amount of fat, most of which is the saturated variety, represents about 25% of the calories in the milk. By the same token, “80% lean” hamburger has about 72% of its calories from fat, while “90% lean“ hamburger has about 51% of its calories from fat.
Trans Fat: This is a fat typically created artificially by bubbling hydrogen through vegetable oil. In regard to health, it is the worst kind of fat you can consume. You should therefore strive to totally eliminate it from your diet. A quirk in the labeling requirements allow a food serving with less than 0.5 mg of trans fats to be listed as zero trans fat. Therefore, you should always read the list of ingredients and avoid foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, or shortening.
Cholesterol: Your blood cholesterol level, and especially your LDL cholesterol level, is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. While your blood cholesterol level somewhat reflects your hereditary predisposition, consuming foods containing cholesterol is associated with higher blood cholesterol. Only animal food products contain cholesterol while plant-foods have none. Meat from all animals, such as cattle, pigs, chicken, and fish, all contain roughly the same amount of cholesterol per unit weight. Other major sources of cholesterol are milk-fat and eggs. The daily recommended intake limit for cholesterol is 300mg. As an example of how the food label can help you make healthier choices, a half-cup of Edy‘s frozen yogurt blend is listed as having only 40% as much cholesterol as Edy’s full-fat ice cream.
Sodium: This is one of the most important aspects of the food label because sodium can be very detrimental to your health by raising your blood pressure, which in turn can damage your kidneys, increase plaque deposits in your arteries, raise your likelihood of dementia, and contribute to a host of other health problems. The maximum daily allowance for sodium is 2,300mg. The major source of sodium in our diets is table salt (sodium-chloride: NaCl). Unfortunately, many processed foods are loaded with salt, and it’s very easy to exceed the daily recommended sodium limit. Some sources of sodium come as a surprise. For example, the following is the sodium content of some common processed foods:
- a slice of Wonder Bread, 150mg
- a slice of Matthew’s all-natural whole-wheat bread, 140mg
- a single-serving 5.5 oz Celeste frozen pizza, 1,190mg
- ¾ cup of Total cereal, 190mg
- a Hungry Man Roasted Carved Turkey Dinner, 1,620mg
- a single slice of Kraft’s white American cheese, 240mg
It’s easy to see how difficult it is to stay under the recommended daily limit. But attentiveness to the food labels can provide a big health payoff.
Dietary Fiber: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 14 grams of fiber per day for every 1,000 calories eaten in order to decrease the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to make elimination of solid waste faster and easier. That’s at least 25g per day of fiber, and one should eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day to reach that goal. Fiber can also be obtained from whole-grain bread and pasta, and brown rice. One can cut corners by eating fiber supplements like psyllium powder and bran fortified cereals. However, such products may increase the likelihood of unpleasant intestinal gas, so it‘s best to get fiber from whole foods. Animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs do not contain fiber. The following are some examples of the fiber content in selected whole and processed foods:
- large apple, 4.5g
- medium banana, 3g
- half-cup cooked black beans, 10g
- one slice whole wheat bread, 3g
- half-cup cooked carrots, 3.5g
- one cup of Wheaties, 2g
- one ear of corn, 5g
- 2 oz uncooked regular pasta, 2g
- 2 oz uncooked whole wheat pasta, 5g
- half-cup of peas, 9g
- one medium baked potato, 5g
- half-cup uncooked white rice, 2g
- half-cup uncooked brown rice, 6g
- 2 Fig Newtons, 1g
Additional Information that May Appear on Nutrition Labels
Polyunsaturated Fat: This kind of fat does not increase disease risk except if it raises caloric intake to the point where overweight or obesity occurs.
Monounsaturated Fat: This is considered a healthy fat and is part of the Mediterranean diet, which has been associated with good health and longevity. It only increases disease risk if it raises caloric consumption to where overweight or obesity occurs.
Potassium: This nutrient is important for counteracting the effect of sodium on blood pressure and appears to have other health benefits. The recommended intake of potassium is 4,500 mg/day. Fruits from vines, leafy green and root vegetables, dairy, meat, and cereal products are good sources of dietary potassium. The following are excellent sources.
- Baked white or sweet potatoes
- cooked leafy greens
- Orange squash
- Bananas and plantains
- Dried fruits
- Oranges and orange juice
- Cantaloupe, and honeydew melons
- Cooked dry beans
- Tomato products (e.g. sauce, paste)
Nutrition Label Footnote: When it appears, this section is the same for all foods, and contains recommended maximum daily intake of some food components that can be harmful if taken in excess and recommended minimum levels of some food components that are essential for good health:
- Total Fat: no more than 65g for a 2,000 calorie diet, 80g for a 2,500 calorie diet
- Saturated Fat: no more than 20g for a 2,000 calorie diet, 25g for a 2,500 calorie diet
- Cholesterol: no more than 300mg regardless of caloric intake
- Sodium: no more than 2,400mg regardless of caloric intake
- Carbohydrate: at least 300g for a 2,000 calorie diet, 375g for a 2,500 calorie diet
- Fiber: at least 25g for a 2,000 calorie diet, 30g for a 2,500 calorie diet
The guidelines of the food nutrition label footnote are good ones. Following them can provide significant health benefits.
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