Your friend is trying hard to shed those last few pounds of extra weight. She munches on a chocolate cookie while she excitedly tells you, “I went for a good jog. I’m sure I burned off the extra calories from these cookies.” The bad news: those cookies contain more calories than she thinks. Whatever calories she burned during her workout were added on again when she ate the cookies.
The nutrition label on food packages, and included with many recipes, provides information on the amount of calories per serving and other nutritional facts like how much fat and fiber is in the food. By reading the label, someone can know exactly how what they eat can affect their weight and overall health.
Describing a Nutrition Facts Label
A nutrition facts label provides detailed information on the nutrient content of a particular food product, along with the amount of calories provided by a single serving of food. This can also be called a nutrition information panel. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made the nutrition facts label a standard requirement in order to help consumers better understand the foods they eat.
Every nutrition facts label lists the following information:
• Serving size
• Servings per container
• Percentage daily value of a particular item
• Calories per serving
• Calories from fat per serving
• Total fat per serving
• Saturated fat per serving
• Trans fat per serving
• Cholesterol per serving
• Sodium per serving
• Carbohydrates per serving
• Dietary fiber per serving
• Sugars per serving
• Protein per serving
• Percentage of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A per serving
• Percentage of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C per serving
• Percentage of the daily recommended amount of calcium per serving
• Percentage of the daily recommended amount of iron per serving
The upper section of the label carries information that will vary, depending on the food product (serving size, calories, and nutrient content).
The bottom section is in the form of a footnote, which describes the recommended dietary information on important nutrients (such as fats, sodium, and fiber) and does not change with each product. The label lists the daily values based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Information on other nutrients like potassium, other fats, and carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals can be included in the label as per the company’s manufacturing policies.
A serving size is the amount of food normally eaten in one serving as determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For packaged foods the FDA has attempted to standardize serving sizes so a consumer can compare products.
The label tells how many servings are in the package and the size of each serving. This is a key piece of information: always remember that the information on a label is based on the serving size, not the entire package.
Servings are described using familiar measurements such as “cups” or “pieces.” For example, a bag of peanuts provides the nutrition information for a serving size of one cup, but there might be four cups in the bag. Therefore, if the whole bag of food is eaten, and there are four servings, then the actual calories consumed would be the four times the “per serving” value. A common source of hidden calories and sugar are soft drinks – often a single bottle actually contains one and a half or two servings.
The percent daily values (%DV) tell how much of a specific nutrient one serving of food contains compared to what is recommended for an entire day based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. Nutrients listed at the top half of the label such as carbohydrates, fiber, and calcium must be consumed in greater amounts. Nutrients at the bottom half of the label include fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. You should limit intake of these nutrients in order to maintain a balanced diet.
One serving of food with 5% DV or less for all nutrients is low, while 20% DV or more is considered high. For example, 2%DV of vitamin C implies the serving provides only 2% of the total vitamin C requirement for the day, which is low. Ideally, you should consume other sources of vitamin C to meet the 100% requirement.
Knowing exactly how many nutrients you consume in a day can be difficult, but %DV helps you figure out if a serving of food provides a little or a lot of the particular nutrient.
An example of a nutrition facts label (this is taken from a recipe, not a packaged good)
• Serving size 1 bar: One serving equals one bar.
• Servings per container (in this case recipe) 24: There are twenty-four servings (24 bars) in the container
• Amount per serving
• Calories 88: There are 88 calories in one serving. That means if someone were to eat all 2 bars, they would consume 176 calories. The total yield of this recipe, 24 bars, equals 2112 calories.
• Calories from Fat: Of the 88 total calories in this serving, 25 calories come from fat.
• Total fat 2.8g: Per serving there are 2.8 grams of fat, which provides 4%DV of the total fat requirement in a day. Out of the total fat content, there is 0.3g of saturated fat and no grams of trans fat, with 2% DV of saturated fat contained in one serving.
Saturated fat and trans fats can both increase a person’s risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. While you may consume up to 20 grams of saturated fat per day, it is recommended that you not consume any trans fat, which is a common ingredient in many commercially prepared baked goods, fried foods, snack foods, and margarine.
• Cholesterol 0g: Per serving, there are 9mg of cholesterol, which provides 3% DV.
• Sodium 134mg: Per serving, there are 134mg of sodium, which provides 6% DV.
• Total carbohydrates 15g: Per serving, there are 15g of carbohydrates, which provides 5% DV.
• Dietary fiber 1.2g: There is 1.2g of dietary fiber in this food product, which provides 5%DV.
• Sugars 9.1g: There are 9.1g of sugar in one serving.
• Protein 1.6g: There is 1.6g of protein in one serving.
• Vitamin A: 64% DV of vitamin A is met with one serving.
• Vitamin C: 0% of DV of vitamin C is met with one serving (if an ingredient accounts for less than 0.5% DV, it can be rounded down on the label).
• Calcium: 3% of DV of calcium is met with one serving.
• Iron: 4% of DV of iron is met with one serving.
The bottom section of the label states that the daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
An average adult should consume no more than 20g of saturated fat in a day.
When a nutrition label says “0 grams trans fat,” it means the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat (nutrition companies are allowed to round small amounts of a nutrient down to zero).
Cholesterol intake should be limited to 300mg per day (less than 200mg in cases where the person has heart disease).
A diet high in sodium can lead to blood pressure problems. Such ingredients should be consumed within limits.
It is also important to note the ratio of sugar to total carbohydrates in foods. In the sample label above, there are 43 grams of carbohydrates, of which 32 g are sugars. A diet high in sugar will increase the risk of tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, and other medical problems. In general, it is best to choose foods that contain more complex carbohydrates, like fiber, than simple sugars.
Fiber in the diet helps with healthy bowel function. Fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain soluble fiber are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol, and may lower the risk of heart disease. A healthy serving of fiber is 5g in one serving of food, and the requirement increases with age. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables contain adequate fiber amounts to meet the recommended daily requirements.
Fiber, vitamins, and minerals should be consumed in adequate amounts to maintain a healthy body and reduce the risk of certain diseases and health conditions. Examples include calcium, which may reduce the risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones), which is associated with aging.