How to Read a Nutrition Label

Food labels are meant to inform us. But often, they simply confuse us. The best way to make good nutritional choices is to know what the information means and what claims you can trust.

Nutrition Label

Make a habit to read the box on the back of the package. You can learn a lot if you know what to check for.

Ingredients. The list is organized by weight, with the heaviest ingredient first. So if you’re buying whole-grain bread, look for "whole grain" at the start of the ingredients. 

Serving size. This is how much people typically eat or drink. It may or may not be the right serving size for you. Multiply the serving size by the number of servings in the package to find out the total calories and nutrients.

Percent Daily Value (%DV). This number is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The %DV tells you the percentage of protein, carbs, fats, and other nutrients in one serving. Some nutrients may be listed in grams instead of percentage. If so, compare those numbers against other products to make the healthiest picks.

Nutrients. These affect your health the most. You’ll want to get less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars and more fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.

Calories. This number is per serving. If you’re inactive, small, female, or older, you may not need the default 2,000 calories per day. You can eat smaller servings to lower your calories. Labels no longer list "calories from fat." That’s because the type of fat you eat can be more important than the total amount.

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Types of Food Claims

In the U.S., the FDA sets some common definitions for certain food claims. Specifically, the FDA regulates three types of claims. The FDA doesn’t always pre-approve these claims. But manufacturers must have substantial proof that their claim isn’t misleading.

Nutrient claims. They include words like "low," "high," "reduced," and "free." If a company wants to say "low sodium" on packaging, for instance, the product has to meet the FDA’s definition of low sodium.

Health claims. For example, a label could say that getting enough calcium throughout your life, and having a balanced diet, may lower your chances of getting osteoporosis.

Structure/function claims. These describe how a nutrient or ingredient affects your body, like a milk carton that says calcium helps build strong bones.

Food Claims You May See

Organic. The National Organic Program (NOP) within the USDA is in charge of the green-and-white organic label you see on some produce and packaging. Foods that have it were made the most natural way possible as defined by NOP guidelines.

Made With Organic. If a product is labeled as being "made with organic [ingredient]," at least 70% of that ingredient must be organic. For example, a label might say "made with organic oats." These products don't get the USDA organic label.

Gluten-Free. This label is important for people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, an autoimmune condition. There is no FDA symbol for this standard. But you can trust a gluten-free claim on most foods.

Cage Free vs. Free Range vs. Organic. You may see this claim on eggs, poultry, or meats.

  • Cage free means hens are still in a closed space, but they have room to walk around.
  • Free range means they get outdoors, even if it’s fenced in.
  • Organic produce and meats were grown or raised in soil free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, or allowed to graze on pastures and fed organic feed without antibiotics or hormones. Organic eggs come from free-range hens raised on organic feed.

Wild Caught vs. Farm Raised. Wild caught means the seafood was caught in a lake, ocean, or another natural body of water. Farm raised means they’re raised in tanks or in net cages off shore.

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Food Claims to Watch Out For

Some health claims on foods lack official definitions. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t believe the claims. But it does mean it’s best to pay closer attention.

Lightly sweetened. Food labels can’t say "low sugar" because there isn’t an FDA definition for the phrase. Companies go around this rule by using a similar phrase. Since "slightly sweet" is up for interpretation, check the nutrition labels of products that make the claim.

Healthy. The FDA is updating its definition for this claim. Until then, companies can make the "healthy" claim if the fats in their foods are mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The healthy claim also can be used on products that have at least 10% of the Daily Value of potassium and vitamin D.

Natural . This word has no official definition, so it can be misleading. Natural usually means that nothing artificial has been added to the product itself. But it doesn’t cover production methods or use of synthetic pesticides and other non-natural things during growing.  

Humanely raised. This isn’t a controlled term by the FDA, so check for third-party certifications to back up claims.

Hormone free. All animals have hormones. With dairy, beef, or lamb, look for "no added hormones" instead. Poultry, veal, eggs, bison, and pork are all free of added hormones because they’re banned by law.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 12, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Animal Welfare Institute: "A Consumer's Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare."

Celiac Disease Foundation: "10 Fast Facts About the FDA Gluten-Free Labeling Rule."

Colorado State University: "Wild caught vs. farm raised seafood."

Electronic Code of Federal Regulations: "Country of Origin Labeling for Fish and Shellfish," "Food Labeling: Subpart E — Specific Requirements for Health Claims."

FDA: "Label Claims for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements," "Organic on Food Labels," "Producing a Food Product that is Regulated by FDA," "Food Labeling Guide," "Use of the Term "Healthy" in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry," "Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling," "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label," "Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label."

Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Food Safety and Inspection Service Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions."

National Institute on Aging: "Reading Food Labels."

Organic Consumers Association: "Are Your Eggs Really "Organic?"

United State Department of Agriculture: "USDA Grademarked Product Label Submission Checklist."

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