Health Library

Deciphering the Nutrition Facts Label: Do You Know What You're Eating?

Food nutrition label
How much calcium is in macaroni and cheese? Which brand of macaroni and cheese has the least fat? The best way to find out this information and more is to read the food label. All food packages bear the Nutrition Facts label, which is full of useful information to help you eat more healthfully.

Let's look at a sample label for macaroni and cheese to find out what is inside.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 1 cup
Servings Per Container: 2
Amount Per Serving
Calories 370         Calories from Fat 140
  % Daily
Value*
Total Fat 15.5 g 23%
Saturated Fat 4 g 20%
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 15 mg 5%
Sodium 660 mg 28%
Total Carbohydrate 49 g 16%
Dietary Fiber 3 g 12%
Sugars 9 g  
Protein 11 g  
Vitamin A 15%
Vitamin C 15%
Calcium 15%
Iron 15%
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie need
 Calories2,0002,500
Total FatLess than65 g80 g
Saturated FatLess than20 g25 g
CholesterolLess than300 mg300 mg
SodiumLess than2,400 mg2,400 mg
Total Carbohydrate 300 g375 g
Dietary Fiber 25 g30 g
Serving Size
Serving Size: 1 cup
Servings Per Container: 2

The serving size tells you the amount of food that the nutrient information given on the label is based on. Pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings are in a package, and compare it to how much you actually eat. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the entire package, you would eat two cups, which means you would also consume twice the amount of the nutrients listed on the label.

Calories and Calories From Fat
Amount Per Serving
Calories 370         Calories from Fat 140

Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from food. Calories come from three sources: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. The label tells you how many of the calories in one serving come from fat.

Important Nutrients

The top half of the nutrition label lists nutrients that can strongly affect your health. They can be divided into two groups: those to limit and those to get enough of.

Nutrients to Limit
Total Fat 15.5 g 23%
    Saturated Fat 4 g20%
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 15 mg 5%
Sodium 660 mg 28%

These are the nutrients that can have adverse effects on your health if they are eaten in excess. For example, too much fat, too much cholesterol, or too much sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and high blood pressure. Saturated fat and Trans fat is of particular concern. Unsaturated fats, which are not required to be listed on a label, are a healthier type of fat. Most of the fat you eat should be the unsaturated type (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). Each gram of fat, whether it is saturated or unsaturated, provides nine calories.

Another kind of fat on the label is trans fats. Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as found in vegetable shortenings and some margarines, which are commonly used in baked goods. Trans fats, along with saturated fats and cholesterol increase the "bad" lipids in your blood, putting you at higher risk for heart disease.

Eating too many calories in general can lead to overweight and obesity. Being overweight is a risk factor for many health conditions including type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Therefore, it is essential to also note the total calories listed on the label.

Nutrients to Get Enough of
Dietary Fiber 3 g 12%
Vitamin A 15%
Vitamin C 15%
Calcium 15%
Iron 15%

These are a few of the nutrients that are beneficial to our health, and many Americans may not get enough. These include vitamins A and C, the minerals calcium and iron, and fiber. Calcium can help decrease the risk of osteoporosis, while vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Fiber, which helps to maintain regularity, is also believed to help decrease the risk of certain chronic diseases.

Total Carbohydrate

Here, you can find the total grams of carbohydrate in the product. One gram of carbohydrate provides four calories. Total carbohydrate includes dietary fiber and sugars, which are both listed on the label, as well as other forms of carbohydrate.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The percent daily values are listed in the right-hand column of the Nutrition Facts label. These percentages tell you whether the nutrients in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to your total daily nutrient intake— 5% or less is "a little" and 20% or more is "a lot."

What Is My Daily Value?

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
 Calories2,0002,500
Total FatLess than65 g80 g
Saturated FatLess than20 g25 g
CholesterolLess than300 mg300 mg
SodiumLess than2,400 mg2,400 mg
Total Carbohydrate 300 g375 g
Dietary Fiber 25 g30 g

The percent daily values are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet and are outlined in a table below the Nutrition Facts label. The information in this table is exactly the same on all food products. (Small food products may not have this table if there is not enough room to display it). These values are based on expert dietary advice for the amount of certain nutrients you should consume over the course of the day.

People's actual calorie intakes can vary widely around 2,000 calories, so you may need greater or lesser amounts of these nutrients based on your actual calorie intake. However, the daily values provide a good starting point to refer to. For example, just knowing that one serving of macaroni and cheese contains 15.5 grams of fat is not very helpful. But to know that this 15.5 grams accounts for 23% of the total amount you should have in a day is a more useful way of interpreting it.

Comparing Percent Daily Values

The percent daily value makes it easy for you to compare the nutrient contents of different brands of similar foods. But first check the serving size to see that it is the same; serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of food. This can help you choose the product with the lower percentage of fat or the greater percentage of calcium, for example.

Sugars and Protein

There are no daily values for sugars and proteins.

% Daily Value*
Sugars 9 g  
Protein 11 g  

There is no DV for sugars because there is no specific recommendation for the amount of sugar we should eat each day. The amount of sugar listed here includes both natural sugars (such as those that occur in fruits and dairy products), as well as sugars added during processing. To determine which type of sugars a food product contains, check the ingredient list.

Usually, there is no DV given for protein. This is because protein intake is not a major health concern for adults and children over the age of four. However, if a food package makes a specific claim about its protein intake, such as "high in protein," the %DV must then be included. The average American eats plenty of protein in his or her daily diet. Each gram of protein provides four calories.

Calcium
Calcium 15%

The DV for calcium is 1,000 (milligrams) mg per day. To determine the exact amount of calcium in a product, you will need to do a little math—just multiply the %DV by 10. If a container of yogurt contains 30% DV; multiply this by 10, which will give you the value of 300 mg.

The DV is 1,000 mg, which is the recommendation for people ages 19-50. However, adolescents (ages 9-18) need 1,300 mg per day, and people age 51 and older need 1,200 mg each day. For these groups, strive for 130% and 120% of the daily value, respectively.

RESOURCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
http://www.eatright.org/

United States Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canada's Food Guide
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca/

References:

Calcium. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/. Accessed September 7, 2012.

Duyff RL, ADA. The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing; 1998.

Hypertension. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 29, 2012. Accessed September 7, 2012.

How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/NFLPM/ucm274593.htm. Updated February 15, 2012. Accessed September 7, 2012.



Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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