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Publication #FCS 8883

Healthy Eating: Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label1

Karla P. Shelnutt2

Why Do We Need the Nutrition Facts Label?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that most food packages have the Nutrition Facts label. This label contains information about nutrients in the food to help people make healthier food choices.

Figure 1. 

(Per FDA.gov: For educational purposes only. This label does not meet the labeling requirements described in 21 CFR 101.9.)


Credit:

FDA


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Older adults can use the label to choose foods that fit with a diet plan to manage a certain disease or other conditions. For example, people with hypertension should choose foods lower in sodium, and those with heart disease may need foods lower in fat. Although the label may look confusing, these guidelines will help you use the information to make better food buying decisions.

Start at the Top

The best place to start is with the serving size and servings per container, located at the top of the Nutrition Facts label. Some serving sizes are smaller than what most Americans eat at one sitting. If you eat the whole package, but the serving size on the Nutrition Facts label is only half a package, then you need to double all the numbers on the label to know how much you ate (U.S Food and Drug Administration, 2013).

Check the Calories

The label tells you how many calories are in one serving (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013). Eating more calories than you need leads to weight gain. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the number of calories:

  • 40 calories or less is low.

  • 100 calories is moderate.

  • 400 calories or more is high.

Limit Certain Nutrients

Americans often eat more total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium than needed in one day. Luckily, these are all listed on the label so you can choose foods lower in these nutrients. Aim to eat less than 100% of the Daily Value for these nutrients per day (U.S Food and Drug Administration, 2013). For a 2,000-calorie diet you should be getting less than the following amounts on a daily basis:

  • 65 g total fat

  • 20 g saturated fat

  • 300 mg cholesterol

  • 2,400 mg sodium

Get Plenty of Good Stuff!

Most American diets don’t contain enough fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium or iron (U.S Food and Drug Administration, 2013). That’s why these nutrients are on the label. Aim to get at least 100% of the % Daily Value (%DV) for these nutrients each day, especially fiber and calcium. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products are great sources of these nutrients.

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Look at the % Daily Values!

The % DV tells you what percentage of your daily requirement for a nutrient is one serving of a food. The % DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, but you can use them as a guide even if you need more or less calories. For example, if a food has 50% DV for calcium, two servings would provide your total calcium requirement for the day. Of course, we don’t need to get 100% of the DV for any nutrient from one food!

  • 5% DV or less is low.

  • 20% DV or more is high.

You can use the % DV to compare nutrients in different brands of the same kind of food as long as the serving sizes are similar (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013).

What About Trans Fat, Protein, and Sugars?

Even though these nutrients do not have % DV listed you still can see how much of these nutrients are in a serving of a food. Experts recommend keeping your intake of trans fats low because they raise blood cholesterol levels (Brouwer, Wanders, & Katan, 2010).

Older adults need to have enough protein in their diets to stay healthy. Some older adults may not eat enough protein (Volpi et al., 2012). Go to http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ for a protein intake recommendation based on your individual needs and examples of different foods that are great sources of this essential nutrient!

There are no recommendations for sugar intake. The amount of sugar listed on the label includes natural and added sugars. Read the ingredients list to see which sugars are in the food. Some common sugars include syrups, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maltodextrin, sucrose, and fruit juice concentrate. There is growing evidence that too much HFCS may increase the risk for obesity and diabetes, so it’s a good idea to avoid eating too much (Bray, Nielsen, & Popkin, 2004).

For a more detailed explanation of the food label, visit the FDA website at http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm20026097.htm.

Where Can I Get More Information?

The Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) agent at your local UF/IFAS Extension office may have more information or classes for you to attend (find your local office at http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map). Also, a registered dietitian (RD) can provide you with reliable information.

References

Bray, G. A., Nielsen, S. J., & Popkin, B. M. (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(4), 537–543.

Brouwer, I. A., Wanders, A. J., & Katan, M. B. (2010). Effect of animal and industrial trans fatty acids on HDL and LDL cholesterol levels in humans—A quantitative review. PLoS One, 5(3), e9434.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2013). Eating healthier and feeling better using the nutrition facts label. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm266853.htm.

Volpi, E., Campbell, W. W., Dwyer, J. T., Johnson, M. A., Jensen, G. L., Morley, J. E., & Wolfe, R. R. (2012). Is the optimal level of protein intake for older adults greater than the recommended dietary allowance?. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 68(6), 677–81. doi: 10.1093/gerona/gls229

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS8883, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: October 2009. Latest revision: July 2013. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Karla P. Shelnutt, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.