Reading Food Labels: What's the Deal?

The deal with food labels

The Nutrition Facts Panel has several parts. You can use it to help limit those nutrients or parts of food you want to cut back on, and also to increase those nutrients you want to eat in greater amounts. For example, you may want to eat less saturated fat but more calcium.

Serving size

It is important to pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings there are in the food package. Compare the serving size to how much you actually eat. The size of the serving on the food package affects all the nutrient amounts listed on the label. One serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient amounts.

Calories and calories from fat

Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. The label also tells you how many of the calories in one serving come from fat. In this example, there are 250 calories in a serving of macaroni and cheese. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories, and 220 of those would come from fat.

% Daily Value

The % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients for a 2,000 calorie daily diet. You may not know exactly how many calories you consume in a day, but you can still use the %DV to help you figure out if a serving of food is high or low in a certain nutrient. This will help you know if the nutrients you get in a serving of food make up a lot or a little of that nutrient for your total daily diet. (By diet, we mean all the different foods you eat in a day.) Generally, anything 5 percent or less is low and anything 20 percent or higher is a lot of that nutrient. Remember, if you double your serving, you also double the percent here.


Limit these nutrients: Fat, cholesterol, and sodium

It is important to limit these nutrients. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may raise your risk for certain diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure. 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.

  • Foods that are high in saturated fat include cheese, whole milk, butter, regular ice cream, and some meats. If your foods are prepared or processed with lard, palm oil, or coconut oil, they will also have saturated fat. Saturated fats tend to raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, which can put you at risk for heart disease.
  • Unsaturated fats do not raise blood cholesterol. Foods with unsaturated fats include olives, avocados, fatty fish, like salmon, and most nuts. Olive, canola, sunflower, soybean, corn, and safflower oils are high in unsaturated fats. Even though unsaturated fats don't raise blood cholesterol, all types of fat are high in calories and should be eaten in limited amounts.
  • Trans fats are in foods that have "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oils that are found in some margarines, vegetable shortenings, crackers, candies, baked goods, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, and other processed foods.

Get enough of these nutrients: Vitamins, minerals and fiber

It is important to get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in your diet. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help lower the risk of some diseases and other health problems. For example, getting enough calcium may lower the risk of osteoporosis, a disease that causes brittle bones as one gets older (see calcium section). Eating a diet high in dietary fiber helps with healthy bowel function. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products that have dietary fiber, especially soluble fiber, and are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol may lower your risk of heart disease.

Nutrients Without a %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars

Trans fat, sugars, and protein do not list a %DV (Daily Value) on the Nutrition Facts label. Why?

Trans Fat: Experts say there is not enough information known to say how much trans fat you can have each day. Research studies link trans fat and saturated fat with raising blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which raise your risk of coronary heart disease. Keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

Protein: Proteins play an important role in your growth and the repair of your body tissues. A %DV needs to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein." Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by those under 4 years old, no %DV is needed. Protein intake is not thought of as a problem for those over 4 years of age.

Sugars: There are no recommendations for the total amount of sugars you should eat in one day. The sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include natural sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. If you are worried about getting too much sugar, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Other names for added sugars (caloric sweeteners) include: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.

To limit nutrients that have no %DV, like trans fats and sugars, compare the labels of similar products and choose the foods with the lowest amount.


This part tells you the Daily Values or the upper or lower limits for the nutrients listed if you take in 2,000 calories in one day. This part of the label does not change from food package to food package because it shows the recommended dietary advice for all Americans. The entire footnote may not appear on all food packages. Also, this information is just a general idea and individual needs vary. Teenage girls generally need about 2,000 calories each day to get enough nutrients to be healthy.

Examples of Daily Values

Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet

Nutrient Goal Daily Value
Total Fat Aim for less than 65g
Sat Fat Aim for less than 20g
Cholesterol Aim for less than 300mg
Sodium Aim for less than 2400mg
Total Carbohydrate Aim for at least 300g
Dietary Fiber Aim for at least 25g


Other labels on the foods you eat

Do you often see labels on foods that say things like "fat-free," "reduced calorie," or "light?" These types of labels are often seen on snack and dessert foods such as potato chips and cookies. Here are some useful definitions for you:

  • Fat–free – less than ½ gram of fat per serving
  • Low–fat – 3 grams or less fat per serving
  • Light – 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat of the regular version
  • Reduced – 25 percent less of the nutrient than the regular version
  • Sugar-free – less than ½ gram of sugars per serving
  • Calorie-free – fewer than 5 calories per serving
  • Cholesterol free – less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 or fewer grams of saturated fat per serving
  • High-fiber – 5 grams or more per serving, must also meet standard for "low-fat"
  • Good source of calcium – at least 100 mg calcium per serving

It's important to remember that fat-free doesn't mean calorie free. People tend to think they can eat as much as they want of fat-free foods. Even if you cut fat from your diet, but consume more calories than what you use, you will gain weight. Also fat-free or low-fat foods may contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium to make up for the loss of flavor when fat is removed. For example, a fat-free muffin may be just as high in calories as a regular muffin. So, remember, it is important to read your food labels and compare products.

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD on April 01, 2006