Food labels contain a great deal of information on most packaged foods. The FDA has proposed updates to the current Nutrition Facts label.
The serving size on the label is based on an average portion size. Similar food products have similar serving sizes to make comparing products easier. The serving size on the label does not always correlate with a healthy serving size. Most of the time, it does not match the serving size on the diabetic exchange list. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed making changes to the food labels that may correct these problems.
AMOUNTS PER SERVING
The total calories and the calories from fat are listed. These numbers help consumers make decisions about fat intake. The list of nutrients includes total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, and protein. These nutrients are important to our health. Their amounts are given in grams (g) or milligrams (mg) per serving to the right of the nutrient.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Only 2 vitamins (A and C) and 2 minerals (calcium and iron) are required on the food label. But, when vitamins or minerals are added to the food, or when a vitamin or mineral claim is made, those nutrients must be listed on the nutrition label. Food companies can voluntarily list other vitamins and minerals in the food.
PERCENT DAILY VALUE
The amounts of vitamins and minerals are listed as a Percent Daily Value on the nutrition label. The Percent Daily Value for vitamins and minerals gives a general idea of how much of a vitamin or mineral 1 serving of the food contributes to the total daily requirement. For example, if the Percent Daily Value for vitamin C of all the foods you eat in a day adds up to 100%, you are getting the recommended amount of vitamin C.
The United States government requires food labels on most packaged foods. The label offers complete, useful, and accurate nutrition information. The government encourages food manufacturers to improve the quality of their products to help us make healthier food choices. The consistent format helps you directly compare the nutritional content of various foods. Food labels are called "Nutrition Facts."
The Percent Daily Value section shows how a food fits into your overall daily diet. The value of the nutrient is given in percentages. The Percent Daily Value gives the food's nutritional content based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You can use this to quickly compare foods and see how the amount of a nutrient in a serving of food fits into a 2,000-calorie diet.
For example, a food that has 13 grams of fat with a Percent Daily Value of 20% means that 13 grams of fat is 20%, or one-fifth, of the total daily fat recommended for a person who eats 2,000 calories per day.
Near the bottom of some food labels, you will see a list of 6 nutrients and the recommended daily intakes. The daily values are listed for 2,000-calorie and for 2,500-calorie diets. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs. This information is not required if the label is too small.
If they are included, the amounts of the first 4 nutrients near the bottom of the label -- total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium -- are maximum amounts. That is why the list says "less than" before the number. The amounts of total carbohydrate and dietary fiber are minimum amounts. This is exactly the same on all food labels that carry it. You can use it as a reference.
NUTRIENT CONTENT CLAIMS
A nutrient content claim is a word or phrase on a food package that makes a comment about the nutritional value of the food. The claim will mean the same for every product. The following are some approved nutrient claims.
- Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
- Reduced-calorie: At least 25% fewer calories per serving when compared to a similar food.
- Light, Lite: One-third fewer total calories or 50% less fat per serving. If more than half the calories are from fat, the fat content must be reduced by 50% or more.
- Sugar-free: Less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.
- Reduced sugar: At least 25% less sugar per serving when compared to a similar food.
- Fat-free: Less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving.
- 100% fat free: Meets the requirements for fat free.
- Low-fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
- Reduced-fat: At least 25% less fat when compared with a similar food.
- Cholesterol free: Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
- Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
- Sodium free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- Salt free: Meets the requirements for sodium free.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a United States government agency that approves and regulates health claim phrases. A health claim is a food label message that describes the relationship between a food or a food component (such as fat, calcium, or fiber) and a disease or health-related condition.
The government has authorized health claims for these 7 diet and health relationships that are backed by extensive scientific evidence:
- Calcium and osteoporosis
- Fat and cancer
- Fiber in grain products, fruits, vegetables and cancer
- Fiber in fruits, vegetables, and grain products and coronary heart disease
- Fruits and vegetables and cancer
- Saturated fat and cholesterol and coronary heart disease
- Sodium and high blood pressure (hypertension)
An example of a valid health claim you may see on a high-fiber cereal food label would be: "Many factors affect cancer risk; eating a diet low in fat and high in fiber may lower the risk of this disease."
For further information on specific health claims, refer to the information on diet and health.
Food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by weight (from the most to the least). People with food sensitivities can obtain useful information from the ingredient list on the label.
The ingredient list will include, when appropriate:
- Caseinate as a milk derivative in foods that claim to be nondairy (such as coffee whiteners)
- FDA-approved color additives
- Sources of protein hydrolysates
Most manufacturers offer a toll-free number to answer questions about specific food products and their ingredients.
FOODS EXEMPT FROM FOOD LABELING
Many foods are not required to have information on them. They are exempt from food labeling. These include:
- Airline foods
- Bulk food that is not resold
- Food service vendors (such as mall cookie vendors, sidewalk vendors, and vending machines)
- Hospital cafeterias
- Medical foods
- Flavor extracts
- Food colors
- Food produced by small businesses
- Other foods that contain no significant amounts of any nutrients
- Plain coffee and tea
- Ready-to-eat food prepared mostly on the site
- Restaurant foods
Stores may voluntarily list nutrients for many raw foods. They may also display the nutrition information for the 20 most commonly eaten raw fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Nutrition labeling for single-ingredient raw products, such as ground beef and chicken breasts, is also voluntary.
Ramu A, Neild P. Diet and nutrition. In: Naish J, Syndercombe Court D, eds. Medical Sciences. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 16.
US Food and Drug Administration website. Food labeling & nutrition. www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition. Updated October 16, 2020. Accessed November 5, 2020.
US Food and Drug Administration website. The new and improved nutrition facts label - key changes. www.fda.gov/media/99331/download. Updated January, 2018. Accessed August 6, 2020.
Review Date 4/6/2020
Updated by: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 11/06/2020.