How To Read A Food Label


The Serving Size

Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, “How many servings will I consume”? 1/2 serving, 1 serving or 2?


The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. In the sample label, one serving of macaroni and cheese dinner equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown in the sample label.

Calories (and Calories from Fat)

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients – thus why there is obesity. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose, or maintain.) Remember: the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat.
Calories from Fat section of label, also showing total calories.
In the example, there are 250 calories in one serving of this macaroni and cheese dinner. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half the calories in a single serving come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories, and 220 would come from fat.

General Guide to Calories

  • 40 Calories is low
  • 100 Calories is moderate
  • 400 Calories or more is high

The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a Nutrition Facts label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. So if you consume this macaroni and cheese dinner than you would be going over the moderate level for ONE serving. Are you starting to see how fast calories add up and WHERE those calories are coming from? These are mostly FAT CALORIES…not good for you calories.

The Nutrients: How Much?

Look at the top of the nutrient section in the sample label. It shows you some key nutrients that impact your health and separates them into two main groups:

   Limit These Nutrients

Label section showing Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium, with quantities and % daily values.
The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much. They are identified in yellow as Limit these Nutrients. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease – CHD, some cancers, or high blood pressure.
 Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

   Get Enough of These

Label sections showing Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron, with % daily values and quantity of dietary fiber.
Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They are identified in blue as Get Enough of these Nutrients. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages.
Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. (Source: FDA website)

Remember: You can use the Nutrition Facts label not only to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on but also to increase those nutrients you need to consume in greater amounts.
OKAY OKAY! So this is a lot of information to keep track of. If you feel you are getting the idea of the food labels finish up here and come back and read more later. The below I talk about the percentages of the needed requirements. I wanted to include it because it is important, yet most people are satisfied with the above information.

Understanding the Footnote on the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label

Foootnote section of label, indicating values for 2000 and 2500 calorie diets highlighting the statement: * Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Note the * used after the heading “%Daily Value” on the Nutrition Facts label. It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which tells you “%DV’s are based on a 2,000 calorie diet“. This statement must be on all food labels. But the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn’t change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans–it is not about a specific food product.
Look at the amounts circled in red in the footnote–these are the Daily Values (DV) for each nutrient listed and are based on public health experts’ advice. DV’s are recommended levels of intakes. DV’s in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Note how the DV’s for some nutrients change, while others (for cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.

 How the Daily Values Relate to the %DVs

Look at the example below for another way to see how the Daily Values (DVs) relate to the %DVs and dietary guidance. For each nutrient listed there is a DV, a %DV, and dietary advice or a goal. If you follow this dietary advice, you will stay within public health experts’ recommended upper or lower limits for the nutrients listed, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

Examples of DVs versus %DVs
Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet

Nutrient DV %DV Goal
Total Fat 65g = 100%DV Less than
    Sat Fat 20g = 100%DV Less than
Cholesterol 300mg = 100%DV Less than
Sodium 2400mg = 100%DV Less than
Total Carbohydrate 300g = 100%DV At least
    Dietary Fiber 25g = 100%DV At least

Upper Limit – Eat “Less than”…

The nutrients that have “upper daily limits” are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example above. Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below – eat “less than” – the Daily Value nutrient amounts listed per day. For example, the DV for Saturated fat (in the yellow section) is 20g. This amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. What is the goal or dietary advice? To eat “less than” 20 g or 100%DV for the day.

Lower Limit – Eat “At least”…

Now look at the section in blue where dietary fiber is listed. The DV for dietary fiber is 25g, which is 100% DV. This means it is recommended that you eat “at least” this amount of dietary fiber per day.
The DV for Total Carbohydrate (section in white) is 300g or 100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories, but can vary, depending on your daily intake of fat and protein.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV):

Percent Daily Value

%DV section of the sample label aboveThe % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients but only for a 2,000 calorie daily diet–not 2,500 calories. You, like most people, may not know how many calories you consume in a day (you might if you used my caloric counting calculator in the other blog). But you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories.
The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.
Note: a few nutrients, like trans fat, do not have a %DV–because you shouldn’t even consume these.
Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to use the %DV? No, the label (the %DV) does the math for you. It helps you interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) 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 each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient (for a 2,000 calorie diet). This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower).


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