What You Need to Know About Food Labels

Food labels give us important information about the foods we consume. They help us become savvy shoppers and make healthier selections.

Always start with the serving size. The rest of the label is based on that amount. Remember that it is easy to eat more than one serving of many foods.
Nutrition Facts Label

The Nutrition Facts label was first mandated by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990 and updated in 2016. It offers clear, concise nutrition information that helps consumers make better choices about what they eat.

The serving size is standardized to allow for direct comparison of similar foods, and it reflects how much people typically eat at one time. It is not a recommendation for how much you should eat.

Nutrients are listed per serving and the percentage of daily value (DV) in the top sections of the label. The bottom section includes a list of “other nutrients,” which is a catch-all for things like calcium, iron and fiber.

Some products may also feature health claims on their labels, such as “low sodium,” “reduced fat” or “high in fiber.” These are regulated by the FDA and should appear only if they meet certain guidelines. They are not intended to replace advice from a healthcare professional.
Ingredients List

An ingredients list is required on food packages and can be found either beside or below the Nutrition Facts label. The ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight on the food product, and they must be identified by their common or usual names. Foods that contain major food allergens (MILK, EGG, FISH, CRUSTACEANS, POTATOES and TREE NUTS) or sulfites must also be clearly labeled.

It’s important to be able to read and understand the ingredients of processed foods, especially since many of them have multiple additives. The first few ingredients on the list tend to make up the bulk of the product. Look for whole foods listed as the first few ingredients, and avoid foods with added sugars, salt and unhealthy fats such as lard, tallow, shortening, hydrogenated oil and trans fats. You should be able to identify the source of each ingredient, as well as its chemical form. This information will help you choose healthier options for your diet.
Serving Size

A serving size is a standardized measurement on the food label that allows you to compare products and know how much you’re eating. The standardized measurement is typically listed as the amount in a common household measure (cup, tablespoon, piece or slice) and followed by the metric amount.

If you eat more than one serving, the nutrition information on the label will change based on how many servings you ate. This helps you stay aware of how much you’re eating and ensures you’re meeting your nutrient needs.

The FDA has recently updated the serving sizes to better reflect what people actually eat, explains Cara Harbstreet, R.D., an intuitive eating registered dietitian. However, a food’s serving size on the label is not a recommended portion size for your unique body. Practice reading labels before heading to the grocery store and talk with a registered dietitian for additional support. They can answer any underlying questions and guide you on how to make the best decisions for your individual health needs.

Most of the information on a food label is based on one serving. However, sometimes a package may contain more than one serving. A pint of ice cream, for example, might contain two servings. If you eat the entire container, you will consume twice as many calories, fat, sugar and other nutrients. These types of products often have labels that display the nutrition facts for both a single serving and the entire container (see Food Label B).

The nutrition label also displays the amount of calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and salt in each product. Some foods are lower in sodium, some are low in saturates and still others have less sugar than the average packaged food. Foods that have been processed to reduce the amount of calories and fat are usually referred to as “light” or “low-fat.”

Some foods have a health star rating, which helps you compare different products. The health star rating is based on the percentage of the recommended daily value for each nutrient — for example, 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low.

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