What's in a label? Read the facts

April 23, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Become a smart shopper by reading food labels to find out more about the foods you eat. Nutrition labels can answer just about any nutrition question you might have about a particular food item.

By reading food labels, you can find out which foods are good sources of fiber, calcium, iron and vitamin C. You can compare similar foods to find out which are lower in fat and calories. You can search for low-sodium foods. You can look for foods that are low in saturated fat and trans fat.

Reading nutrition facts labels is especially important if you or a family member has a food allergy, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Product and nutrition labels offer a wealth of information, including serving size, servings per container, calories and daily values.

Using daily values

Daily values (DVs), listed as "% Daily Value" on nutrition labels, have been established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for nutrients, calories, fat and protein. These values are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories a day.


It is important to remember that daily values refer to an entire day's food consumption, not just to one meal or snack. A food item supplying 5 percent DV of fat means that one serving (of the size specified on the food label) provides 5 percent of the fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat.

You can use the percent daily values to help you evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan.

DVs for fiber are calculated differently than the DVs for fat, saturated fat and protein. Fiber is based on a standard of 11.5 grams per 1,000 calories, or 23 grams per 2,000 calories. For example, if a food contains 1 gram of fiber, then it would account for 4 percent of the recommended daily intake for an average adult.

Five percent or less is low. Aim for 5 percent daily value per serving for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Twenty percent or more is high. Aim for 20 percent daily value per serving for vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Just the (nutrition) facts

Manufacturers also are required to include a "Nutrition Facts" panel that provides information regarding total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

You also might notice that some products claim to be fortified or enriched with certain nutrients. When such claims are made, manufacturers are required to list nutrition information about those ingredients on the label.

Other product claims that shoppers often see on grocery store packaging are terms such as "free," "light," or "a good source of." The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration regulate how and when food manufacturers can use these terms to describe a product.

When a product is labeled as free of a certain nutrient, such as fat, this means that it contains no amount of, or a trivial amount of that nutrient. For example, foods containing 0.5 grams per serving or less of sugar or fat can be labeled as sugar-free or fat-free.

The term "low" is used for foods that are eaten frequently without exceeding dietary guidelines for one or more of the following components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories.

Meats, such as poultry, labeled "lean" contain less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams of meat. Seafood and game meats under the same guidelines can be labeled as "extra lean."

Products labeled as "reduced" have been nutritionally altered to contain at least 25 percent less of a particular nutrient or of calories than their standard product. Reduced claims cannot be made, however, if the standard product already meets the requirements for a "low" claim.

A food labeled as "light" can mean a couple of things. It might mean that a nutritionally altered product contains one-third less calories or half the fat compared to the standard product. "Light" also could mean that a low-calorie, low-fat food contains 50 percent less sodium than its reference product.

Ingredients and allergies

Check the ingredients list on your foods. Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first.

Manufacturers are required to clearly state if food products contain any ingredients that contain protein derived from the eight major allergenic foods. These foods are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

More information

For additional information on food labels check out This interactive program will provide you with information to help plan a healthful diet while managing calorie intake. The exercises will help you use the food label to make decisions about which food choice is right for you.

For other Nutrition Facts label information, visit the following web sites:

· - A guide to federal food labeling requirements for meat and poultry products.

· - For more information about understanding and using the nutrition facts label on food products.

· - For information about qualified health claims on food product labels.

If you would like a printed copy of "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label," you can send a self-addressed, business-size envelope with a 41-cent stamp to Maryland Cooperative Extension-Washington County Office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713. Mark the envelope "Label."

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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