Understanding the Food Label

Believe it or not, the food label is the most popular read in the supermarket! But, understanding how to use them is key in helping yourself choose healthier foods.

Almost all packaged and processed foods have food labels. A few exceptions are very small packages on which the information doesn't fit, bulk foods or foods with next to no nutrients, such as coffee, tea, spices, and herbs.

There is also a voluntary program set up in many grocery stores to provide nutrition information for many raw foods. Items like raw fruits, vegetables, and fish and many of the best-selling cuts of meat.

Since 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required food manufacturers to list trans fat (trans fatty acids) on Nutrition Facts panels for the foods you purchase at the supermarket. Trans fats are found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils.

You should be able to find trans fat listed on the Nutrition Facts panel directly under the line for saturated fat. If the information is missing, it may be because some manufacturers are still transitioning to the new label or the label value for trans fat is 0.5 g or less per serving. Below is a sample label showing the new listing for trans fat.

  1. Nutrition Facts: The header that manufacturers are required to use.
  2. Serving Size: The information is based on the amount of food in one serving shown in both common household (1 cup) and metric (288 g) measures.
  3. Calories from Fat, Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol: Limit saturated fat to less than 10% of your total calories and consume no more than 300 mg cholesterol daily.

    Trans Fat: Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL (or "bad") cholesterol that increases your risk for coronary heart disease.
  4. % Daily Values: This is the percent of each nutrient provided in one serving of the product, based on the daily values for 2,000 calories per day (an average caloric intake for adults per day).
  5. Sodium : Most healthy adults and people with mild to moderate hypertension (high blood pressure) should consume less than 1,500 mg sodium daily.
  6. Total Carbohydrate: Look at the total carbohydrate, which is the amount in one serving of the food. If you are counting carbohydrate choices or exchanges, you need to know that 1 choice or exchange contains 15 grams of carbohydrate. It's equal to 1 starch, fruit, or milk serving or exchange.
  7. Sugars: Listed on as a subcategory of Total Carbohydrate; look at the total amount of carbohydrate.
  8. Vitamins and Minerals: The percent of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron provided in a serving of the food.
  9. Daily Values: Two calorie levels are used because an "average" woman needs around 2,000 calories per day and an "average" man needs 2,500. This is mandatory, unless the label is too small.
Other required items on labels:
  • Name of food.
  • Manufacturer's name and address.
  • Net weight of contents in package.
  • Ingredient list in descending order of quantity by weight.