Food Labels


 

food label
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The information found
on a food label can help
you make food choices that
are best for your health.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 set into motion new standards for the labeling of nutrition information on food products. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this law mandates that almost all packaged foods display a Nutrition Facts panel that details specific nutrition information.

The law also authorizes the use of nutrient content claims (such as low fat or high fiber) and FDA-approved health claims that link food or food components with reducing the risk of disease, including coronary heart disease.

Food labels provide a wealth of information that you can use to compare food products and choose nutritious foods that benefit your health. See the next page for tips on how to read a food label.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Choosing a Diet Program: Confused about which diet program is right for you? Get tips and guidelines that can help you choose.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

How to Read a Food Label

To read a food label, check the Nutrition Facts panel. On this panel, manufacturers are required to express nutrient amounts in a reasonable, standardized serving size defined for each type of food. This makes it easier to compare similar foods and decide which ones are best for your eating plan. The Nutrition Facts panel also lists the number of servings per container, number of calories, calories from fat, and grams of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, and protein in a standard serving of the food. Keep in mind that the nutrition information is based on one serving, so if you eat half a serving, all the nutritional values listed need to be cut in half. If a product contains four servings and you eat all of it, then the calories, fat and other nutrients need to be multiplied by four.

Trans fat is the latest addition to the Nutrition Facts panel. However, the labeling laws allow for some rounding of nutritional values, and in the case of trans fat, if the food contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat, it can be rounded to 0 g. This becomes tricky if you are trying to limit your intake of trans fat. For example, if you had three servings of a food labeled as 0 g trans fat, but it actually contained 0.3 g, you'd be eating almost 1 g of trans fat. If you're aiming for less than 2 g of trans fat a day, you'd be halfway to the limit, and that's only from one food!

For total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, as well as any other vitamins or minerals listed, the label also gives a "% Daily Value." The Daily Value refers to the amount of a nutrient that is recommended for a person who consumes 2,000 calories a day. Near the bottom of the label, you'll find the recommended grams for some of these nutrients for a 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diet.

Look at the Nutrition Facts label below. On a 2,000-calorie diet, the Daily Value for total fat is less than 65 g, which is slightly under 30 percent of total calories. If a label lists 13 g of fat per serving, it is equal to 20 percent of the Daily Value. To get 20 percent of your entire Daily Value of fat from one food makes this a high-fat food. Now that you know this information, you have two choices: You can eat the food and limit fat in your other food choices throughout the whole day, or you can choose another food with a lower Daily Value of fat. Even if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories each day, the percent Daily Value is a helpful guide because it allows you to compare the nutritional value of food products, evaluate whether a food has too much or too little of a particular nutrient, and determine how well it fits into your overall diet.

Another way to tell if a food has certain health properties is to check for Food and Drug Administration-approved health claims on the label. To find out what these claims mean and why some foods are qualified to carry them, see the next page.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Different Types of Fat: Dietary fat can come in a variety of forms which have different effects on the body. Learn the difference between saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats -- and which are the best dietary choices.
  • Estimating Your Calorie Intake: One of the most important tools for weight loss is to monitor your calorie intake. Find out how to estimate the calories you eat over the course of the day.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Health Claims on Food Packages

To make it easier to find foods that will fit into a heart-healthy eating plan, you can look for health claims on food packages. Food and Drug Administration-approved health claims are statements that confirm a relationship between a food or substance in a food -- such as saturated fat, whole grains, soluble fiber, or plant sterols -- and the risk of a disease, such as heart disease.

Health claims are based on significant scientific agreement, which is the highest standard of scientific evidence that shows a relationship between a food or component in the food and a health-related condition. Not all foods carry such claims, even if they meet the standards, because a manufacturer may choose not to do so. If a food carries a claim about heart disease, for example, it has to be low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. In some cases, it will also be a good source of soluble fiber. Here is an example of one type of health claim: "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain some types of dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, may reduce the risk of heart disease, a disease associated with many factors."

Qualified health claims are based on emerging evidence of a relationship between a food or food component and a health-related condition or reduced risk of a disease. The scientific evidence for a qualified health claim is not as strong as that of a health claim based on scientific agreement, so it needs qualifying language. Nuts, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fats from olive oil are allowed a qualified health claim for reduced risk of heart disease if they meet the required specifications for food components or nutrient levels. This is an example of a qualified health claim: "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. [See nutrition information for fat content]."

Meat and poultry also have standardized health labels, but they have some differences from the labels found on packaged foods. To learn more about labels on meat and poultry, see the next page.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Foods that Lower Cholesterol: Eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is the best way to reduce your cholesterol and your risk of coronary heart disease. Explore the dietary choices that can help you lower your cholesterol.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Labels on Meat and Poultry

In 1993, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), issued a ruling that required mandatory nutrition labeling for most meat and poultry products, except for raw meat and poultry. This agency, which regulates the safety and quality of meat and poultry, worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make meat and poultry labels virtually identical to the labels developed for all other foods. The cooperation between these two agencies has made it easier for consumers to use the food labels to plan a healthy diet.

Labels for meat and poultry use the same format as the labels on other foods. There are some slight differences, however. One is that the "% Daily Value" column for a serving of meat or a poultry product may be expressed as raw or cooked or both. Because these foods can lose 25 percent or more of their raw-fat content during preparation, the cooked values provide a better indication of the amount of fat and calories actually eaten. These values are calculated based on preparing the foods by common cooking methods and without added ingredients.

Another difference is that the USDA permits the voluntary labeling of stearic acid on meat and poultry labels. If it is listed, which isn't often, stearic acid would be found under saturated fat and included in the total amount of saturated fat. This particular fatty acid does not appear to raise blood-cholesterol levels the way other saturated fatty acids do.

The USDA has also defined how certain terms, such as "lean" and "extra lean," may be used on the label. Lean meat or poultry products -- as well as seafood and game meats, which are regulated by the FDA -- must contain less than 10 g of fat, 4.5 g or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol in a 3-ounce serving. Extra-lean meat and poultry products must have less than 5 g of fat and less than 2 g of saturated fat, which is about half the amount per serving as lean products, but they can have the same amount of cholesterol, 95 mg, as a lean product.

Voluntary food labeling isn't only for meat and poultry products. See the next page to learn more about voluntary nutrition information programs.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Healthy Meals: Mealtimes are the best opportunity for healthy eating. Learn how to create meals that are balanced and nutritious.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

 

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

 

Voluntary Food Labeling

Some foods follow voluntary food labeling because they are exempt from mandatory nutrition labeling, including raw fruits, vegetables, fish, and single-ingredient raw meat and poultry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created a voluntary nutrition information program to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions that reflect their dietary needs. Retail stores can convey this information in a variety of ways -- brochure, poster, leaflet, notebook, stickers, or on the individually packaged food -- as long as the materials are available in the appropriate food department.

The FDA first established guidelines for voluntary nutrition information in 1991 and then amended them in 2006 by updating the names and nutrition labeling values for the 20 most frequently eaten raw fruits, vegetables, and fish. The information provided includes serving size, calories per serving, and nutrient values similar to those found on standard nutrition labels. For fish, the information is based on 3 ounces of cooked product. The effective date for these amendments is January 1, 2008.

The 1993 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruling on the labeling of meat and poultry products allows single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products, such as raw chicken breasts, raw beef roasts, ground beef, and ground poultry, to be labeled on a voluntary basis. The nutrition information needs to be on the product label or posted close to the counter where these items are displayed. The regulations also state that if volunteer participation by retailers or manufacturers drops below 60 percent, the USDA has the right to require nutrition labeling on these products.

In January 2001, the USDA proposed mandatory nutrition labeling for major cuts of raw meat and poultry and for packages of ground or chopped meat and poultry. Some exemptions for small businesses would apply. For the major cuts of meat and poultry, the nutrition information could be provided on the package or near the point of purchase, such as on posters or in brochures, leaflets, or notebooks. For ground or chopped meat or poultry, the nutrition labeling would need to be on the product package. A final rule on this proposal has not yet been issued.

The terminology used on food labels can often be confusing. See the next page for a chart that explains the meanings behind many common labels.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Low Cholesterol Diet: Eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is the best way to reduce your cholesterol and your risk of coronary heart disease. Explore the dietary choices that can help you lower your cholesterol.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

 

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

 

Food Label Terminology

Food label terminology can be confusing. Here is a collection of some of the terms you may find on food packages.

If the label says...
It means...
Calorie free
Less than 5 calories per serving
Low calorie40 calories or less per serving
Reduced calorieAt least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the regular version
Cholesterol freeLess than 2 mg cholesterol and 2 g or less saturated fat per serving
Fat freeLess than 0.5 g fat per serving
Low fat3 g or less fat per serving
Reduced fat or less fatAt least 25 percent less fat per serving than the regular version
Saturated-fat-freeLess than 0.5 g saturated fat and less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving
Low saturated fat1 g or less saturated fat per serving
Reduced saturated fat or less saturated fatAt least 25 percent less saturated fat per serving than the regular version
Light or LiteOne-third fewer calories or 50 percent or less fat than the regular version; non-nutritive "light" claims are allowed but must identify the basis of the claim (examples: "light in color," "light in texture")
LeanLess than 10 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, and 95 mg cholesterol per serving
Extra leanLess than 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, and 95 mg cholesterol per serving

It's important to understand the terminology used in food labels. And it's just as important to know what ingredients are in the foods you eat. See the next page to learn how ingredients are labeled, and what you can learn about a food from its ingredients.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Low Cholesterol Diet: Eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is the best way to reduce your cholesterol and your risk of coronary heart disease. Explore the dietary choices that can help you lower your cholesterol.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Food Ingredients on Labels

Regardless of what else is on the label, there is much valuable information to be learned from food ingredients on labels. All food labels list the ingredients in order of weight: The ingredient with the greatest amount of weight is listed first; the ingredient with the least amount is listed last. So, if a product lists a particular fat (or oil) as the first ingredient, the product contains more of that fat than any other single ingredient. If the product label lists several fats and oils, that product is likely to be high in total fat.

The accompanying table lists common sources of saturated fat and cholesterol. It’s best to cut back on foods that list these ingredients first or that list several of them if you want to lower your cholesterol.

Common ingredients that contain saturated fat and/or cholesterol include:

bacon fatchicken fatwhole-milk solidscocoa butter
pork fat or lard turkey fat egg yolks coconut oil
beef fat butter vegetable shortening palm kernel oil
lamb fat cream hydrogenated vegetable oil palm oil

You'll also want to pay special attention to the specific types of fats and oils the product contains. For example, some products simply list vegetable oil as an ingredient. While that may imply a healthful oil, remember that tropical oils -- coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil -- are highly saturated. Cocoa butter is also high in saturated fat. Other than these oils, vegetable oils are primarily unsaturated fats. But remember if the oil is partially hydrogenated, that means it contains trans fat. To limit trans fat in your diet, look for products that list non-hydrogenated monounsaturated or polyunsaturated vegetable oil in the ingredients, such as olive, canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, sesame, or soybean oil.

For more information about nutritious eating, see:

  • Eating Healthy: A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is great for maintaining good health. Find out which food choices work best in a healthy eating plan.
  • Low Cholesterol Diet: Eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is the best way to reduce your cholesterol and your risk of coronary heart disease. Explore the dietary choices that can help you lower your cholesterol.
  • How Cholesterol Works: Cholesterol is vital to human life. Learn what cholesterol is, how it functions in the body, and why too much of it can be deadly.
  • Weight Loss: For many people, weight loss is an important goal. Explore the different methods of losing weight, and see which can work for you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adrienne Forman, M.S., R.D., is a consultant and freelance writer, specializing in nutrition and health communications. She is the editor of Shape Up America! newsletter, an online publication, and has been a contributing editor of Environmental Nutrition newsletter for the past 14 years. Adrienne is a former Senior Nutritionist at Weight Watchers International, where she was instrumental in creating multiple weight-loss programs, including their popular Points® program.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.