Understanding Food Labels

Make better food choices by understanding and comparing nutrition content.

  • On packaged food, look for the Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • For fresh fruits and vegetables, look for posted nutrition information in the produce section, or ask the produce manager if you don’t see it.

What does all that information mean?

Total Carbohydrate
Dietary Fiber
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
Serving Size
Servings Per Container
Fats (Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol)
"Low Source" "Good Source" "Excellent Source"
Total Carbohydrate
carbohydrate is a nutrient considered to be the body’s main source of energy (calories); “Total Carbohydrate” on a food label includes fiber and sugars (both naturally occurring and added).

Dietary Fiber – a non-digestible carbohydrate found in foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. It is a dietary component that most Americans need more of—along with vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

Percent Daily Value (% DV) – percentage of which a specific nutrient in a serving of a particular food contributes to the daily value—or need (100%) for that nutrient.

The Daily Values (DVs) are reference points for intakes determined by public health experts and are considered general guidelines based on a 2,000 calorie daily intake. If your calorie needs are higher, then the percent listed on the label would be lower, and conversely, if your calorie needs are lower, then the percent listed will actually be higher.

The % DV can tell you whether a food product is a low, good, or excellent source of that particular nutrient. Low Source – 5% or less of nutrient; Good Source – 10-19% of nutrient; Excellent Source 20% or greater of nutrient

The % DV is a good guide to use when comparing food choices based on the content of certain nutrients.

another energy-providing nutrient for the body with many important functions, one of which being cell/body
tissue growth and repair.

Serving Size – a set amount recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as one that is commonly consumed by most people for that product. This amount is presented in common household measure as well as metric weight. Nutritional information on labels is given on a per serving basis—not per container. This is very different from a portion, which is the amount that people actually end up eating in one sitting. Knowing how much you are actually eating relative to the serving size listed, will help you determine how many calories and how much of the listed nutrients you are getting.

Servings Per Container – The number of single servings in an entire package of food. Information reflected in the Nutrition Facts Panel is for a single serving. If you eat more than one serving or prepare the whole package, multiply the Nutrition Facts Panel figures by the number of servings you consume. Referring to the Nutrition Facts Panel example, the serving size listed is 1 cup, which provides 25 calories. If you were to actually eat 2 cups, then you would get 50 calories.

Sodium – This nutrient should be limited according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Other words for “salt” on an ingredient statement are: sodium chloride, sodium caseinate, monosodium glutamate, trisodium phosphate, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium stearoyl lactylate.

Sodium free – product must contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Very low sodium – product must contain 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

Low sodium – product must contain 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

Sugar Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Some sugars are naturally occurring, while others are added. Be aware of other words for “sugar” that are often listed on an ingredient statement: sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, fructose, glucose, honey and maltodextrin. These words indicate sugar has been added to the food product. Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars.

Total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol – These nutrients should be limited, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the science-based dietary health report that provides information and advice for choosing a nutritious diet. It is published by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Saturated Fat:
fat negatively associated with heart health, coming mainly from animal foods and certain oils; typically solid at room temperature.

Trans Fat:
fat negatively associated with heart health, formed during the hydrogenation process (when a softer or unsaturated fat is processed to become more firm or solid), but can be found naturally in some foods.
Most trans fat in the diet comes from hydrogenated fats.

waxy, fat-like substance negatively associated with heart health; produced naturally in the body and found in all foods of animal origin.

Fat free: To make this claim, a product must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Low fat: This type of product must contain 3 grams or less of fat per serving.

Ingredients shown on a product label are listed in order of predominance by weight. The ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last. If sugar is listed first, for example, that means that there is more sugar in the product than other ingredients.

Good and Excellent – These words on product packaging carry specific, legal meaning as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Good Source – 10-19% of nutrient
Excellent Source – 20% or greater of nutrient

Key Nutrients in Fruits and Veggies
How Many Cups Do You Need
Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Fruit & Veggue Database

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