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Guidance on How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Panel on Food Labels

| The Nutrition Facts Panel - An Overview | The Serving Size | Calories (and Calories from Fat) | The Nutrients: How Much? | Understanding the Footnote | How the Daily Values (DV) Relate to the %DVs | The Percent Daily Value (%DV) | Quick Guide to %DV | Nutrients With a %DV but No Weight Listed - Spotlight on Calcium | Nutrients Without a %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars |

People look at food labels for different reasons. But whatever the reason, many consumers would like to know how to use this information more effectively and easily. The following guidance is intended to make it easier for you to use nutrition labels to make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet.

The Nutrition Facts Label - An Overview:

The information in the main or top section (see #1-4 and #6 on the sample nutrition label below), can vary with each food product; it contains product-specific information (serving size, calories, and nutrient information).

The bottom part (see #5 on the sample label below) contains a footnote with Daily Values (DVs) for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. This footnote provides recommended dietary information for important nutrients, including fats, sodium and fiber.

The footnote is found only on larger packages and does not change from product to product.

In the following Nutrition Facts label we have colored certain sections to help you focus on those areas that will be explained in detail. You will not see these colors on the food labels on products you purchase.
 

Sample Label for Macaroni & Cheese

#1. Start Here with the serving size.

Title and Serving Information section of label.


#2. Calories from Fat.

Calorie section of label.


#3. Limit These Nutrients: Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium.

#5. Quick Guide to %DV.

#4. Get Enough of These Nutrients: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.

Remaining Carbohydrates, including Dietary Fiber and Sugars, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron section of label.

#5. Quick Guide to %DV: 5% or less is Low / 20% or more is High.

#6. The Footnote, or Lower part of the Nutrition Facts Panel.

Footnote section of label, indicating values for 2000 and 2500 calorie diets.


The Serving Size

Serving Size section of label.

(#1 on sample label):

The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts panel is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams. Serving sizes are based on the amount of food people typically eat, which makes them realistic and easy to compare to similar foods.

Pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings there are in the food package, and compare it to how much YOU actually eat.

The size of the serving on the food package influences all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown below (see Calories and %Daily Value for more information).

Example
  Single Serving %DV       Double Serving %DV
Serving Size 1 cup (228g)   2 cups (456g)  
Calories 250   500  

Calories from Fat

110

 

220

 

Total Fat

12g

18%

24g

36%

Trans Fat

1.5g

 

3g

 

Saturated Fat

3g

15%

6g

30%

Cholesterol

30mg

10%

60mg

20%

Sodium

470mg

20%

940mg

40%

Total Carbohydrate

31g

10%

62g

20%

Dietary Fiber

0g

0%

0g

0%

Sugars

5g

 

10g

 

Protein

5g

 

10g

 

Vitamin A

  4%   8%

Vitamin C

  2%   4%

Calcium

  20%   40%

Iron

  4%   8%

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Calories and Calories from Fat

Calories from Fat section of label.

(#2 on sample label):

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food.  In the example, there are 250 calories in one serving of this macaroni and cheese. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half the calories in a single serving come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories, and 220 would come from fat.

The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a Nutrition Facts label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Eating too many calories per day is linked to overweight and obesity.

General Guide to Calories

  • 40 Calories is low

  • 100 Calories is moderate

  • 400 Calories or more is high

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The Nutrients (#3 and 4 on sample label):

Look at the top section in the sample nutrition label. It shows nutrients that are important for your health and separates them into two main groups:

Limit These Nutrients

Limit These Nutrients: Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium.

(#3 on sample label):

The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much. They are identified in yellow as Limit these Nutrients. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure.

Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

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Get Enough of These

Get Enough of These Nutrients: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.

(#4 on sample label):

Most Americans don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They are identified in blue as Get Enough of these Nutrients. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.

For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages (see calcium section below). Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Remember: You can use the Nutrition Facts label not only to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on but also to increase those nutrients you need to consume in greater amounts.

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The Percent Daily Value (%DV):

%DV section of label.

This part of the Nutrition Facts panel tells you whether the nutrients (fat, sodium, fiber, etc) in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to your total daily diet. By diet we mean all the different foods you eat in a day.

The % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients but only for a 2,000 calorie daily diet--not 2,500 calories. You, like most people, may not know how many calories you consume in a day. But you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories.

The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.

Note: a few nutrients, like trans fat, do not have a %DV--they will be discussed later.

Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to use the %DV? No, the label (the %DV) does the math for you. It helps you interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale for the day (0-100%DV).

The %DV column doesn't add up vertically to 100%. Instead each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient (for a 2,000 calorie diet). This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower).

Footnote of label with header circled.%DVs are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet.

For labeling purposes, FDA set 2,000 calories as the reference amount for calculating %DVs. The %DV shows you the percent (or how much) of the recommended daily amount of a nutrient is in a serving of food.

By using the %DV, you can tell if this amount is high or low. You, like most people, may not know how many calories you consume in a day. But you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference, whether or not you eat more or less than 2,000 calories each day.

It's not hard to follow nutrition experts' advice for a healthy diet. Try to limit your total daily intake of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol (shown in yellow on the chart) to less than 100%DV.

Likewise, you should try to get enough essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C as well as other components such as dietary fiber (shown in blue on the chart). Try to average 100% for each one of these nutrients each day.

%DVs are easy to use.

Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to follow this advice? No, the label (the %DV) does the math for you. It helps you interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale (0-100%DV), much like a ruler. This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended limit (upper or lower).

Total Fat section of sample label with %DVs hidden.Example of %DV for Total Fat:

If you cover up the %DVs on the sample label, can you tell if 12g of Total Fat is high or low? Another way of asking this question is, does one serving (containing 12g of fat) contribute a lot or a little Total Fat to your daily diet?
Total Fat section of sample label with %DVs shown and 18% circled.Now look at the %DVs on the label example: 12g fat equals 18%DV. When one serving of macaroni and cheese contains 18%DV for Total Fat, that means you have 82% of your fat allowance left for all the other foods you eat that day (100%-18%=82%).

 

Illustration of previous sentence concerning % fat allowance.
Quick Guide to %DV %DV section of label. (#6 on sample label):

This general guide tells you that 5%DV or less is low and 20%DV or more is high.

This means that 5%DV or less is low for all nutrients, those you want to limit (e.g., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), and those that you want to consume in greater amounts (fiber, calcium, etc).

As the Quick Guide shows, 20%DV or more is high for all nutrients.

Example:

Look again at the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label for macaroni and cheese.

Is 18%DV contributing a lot or a little to your maximum fat limit of 100% DV? Check the Quick Guide to %DV. You see that 18%DV, which is below 20%DV, is not yet high, but what if you ate the whole package (two servings)?

You would double that amount, eating 36% of your daily maximum for Total Fat. That amount, coming from just one food, would contribute a lot of fat to your daily diet. It would leave you 64% of your fat allowance (100%-36%=64%) for all of the other foods you eat that day, snacks and drinks included.

1 serving

Illustration of previous sentence concerning % fat allowance in one serving.

2 servings

Illustration of previous sentence concerning % fat allowance in two servings.

Using the %DV for:

Comparisons: The %DV also makes it easy for you to make comparisons. You can compare one product or brand to a similar product. Just make sure the serving sizes are similar, especially the weight (e.g. gram, milligram, ounces) of each product. It's easy to see which foods are higher or lower in nutrients because the serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of foods, (see the comparison example at the end) except in a few cases like cereals.

Nutrient Content Claims: Use the %DV to help you quickly distinguish one claim from another, such as "reduced fat" vs. "light" or "nonfat." Just compare the %DVs for Total Fat in each food product to see which one is higher or lower in that nutrient--there is no need to memorize definitions. This works when comparing all nutrient content claims, e.g., less, light, low, free, more, high, etc.

Dietary Trade-Offs: You can use the %DV to help you make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day. You don't have to give up a favorite food to eat a healthy diet. When a food you like is high in fat, balance it with foods that are low in fat at other times of the day. Also, pay attention to how much you eat so that the total amount of fat for the day stays below 100%DV.

Nutrients With a %DV but No Weight Listed - Spotlight on Calcium:

Calcium: Look at the %DV for calcium on food packages so you know how much one serving contributes to the total amount you need per day. Remember, a food with 20%DVSample food label with sugars and protein circled. or more contributes a lot of calcium to your daily total, while one with 5%DV or less contributes a little.

Experts advise adult consumers to consume adequate amounts of calcium, that is, 1,000mg or 100%DV in a daily 2,000 calorie diet. This advice is often given in milligrams (mg), but the Nutrition Facts label only lists a %DV for calcium.

For certain populations, they advise that adolescents, especially girls, consume 1,300mg (130%DV) and post-menopausal women consume 1,200mg (120%DV) of calcium daily. The DV for calcium on food labels is 1,000mg.

To find the %DV that corresponds with 1,300mg and 1,200mg, just divide the number of mg by 10. (The DV for calcium on food labels is 1,000mg). When converted to a percent, this gives a factor of 10. Thus, the daily target for teenage girls, 1,300mg , equals 130%DV, and the daily target for post menopausal women, 1,200mg, equals 120%DV.

Don't be fooled -- always check the label for calcium because you can't make assumptions about the amount of calcium in specific food categories. Example: the amount of calcium in milk, whether skim or whole, is generally the same per serving, whereas the amount of calcium in the same size yogurt container (8oz) can vary from 20-45 %DV.

    Illustration of above sentence.

If you want to convert the %DV for calcium into milligrams, just multiply by 10. A container of yogurt might list 30%DV for calcium. To convert this to milligrams, multiply by 10, which equals 300mg of calcium for the yogurt.

    Equivalencies

    30% DV = 300mg calcium = one cup of milk

    100% DV = 1,000mg calcium

    130% DV = 1,300mg calcium

The important thing is to look at the %DV for calcium on the food package so you know how much one serving contributes to the total amount you need. Remember, a food with 20%DV or more contributes a lot of calcium to your daily total, while one with 5%DV or less contributes a little.

See Comparison Example #2.

Nutrients Without a %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars:
Note that Trans fat, Sugars and, Protein do not list a %DV on the Nutrition Facts label.

Trans Fat: Experts could not provide a reference value for trans fat nor any other information that FDA believes is sufficient to establish a Daily Value or %DV. Scientific reports link trans fat (and saturated fat) with raising blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which increase your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US.

Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

Protein: A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein". Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.

Plain Yogurt

Fruit Yogurt

Sample label for Pain Yogurt - Trans Fat: 0g, Protein 13g, Sugars 10g

Sample label for Fruit Yogurt - Trans Fat: 0g, Protein 9g, Sugars 44g

No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.

Take a look at the Nutrition Facts label for the two yogurt examples. The plain yogurt on the left has 10g of sugars, while the fruit yogurt on the right has 44g of sugars in one serving.

Now look below at the ingredient lists for the two yogurts. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight (from most to least). Note that no added sugars or sweeteners are in the list of ingredients for the plain yogurt, yet 10g of sugars were listed on the Nutrition Facts label. This is because there are no added sugars in plain yogurt, only naturally occurring sugars (lactose in the milk).

If you are concerned about your intake of sugars, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients.

Other names for added sugars include: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.

To limit nutrients that have no %DV, like trans fat and sugars, compare the labels of similar products and choose the food with the lowest amount.

Plain Yogurt - contains no added sugars

Ingredients: Cultured pasteurized grade A nonfat milk, whey protein concentrate, pectin, carrageenan.
 

Fruit Yogurt - contains added sugars

Ingredients: Cultured grade A reduced fat milk, apples, high fructose corn syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, natural flavors, and pectin. Contains active yogurt and L. acidophilus cultures. (High Fructose Corn Syrup is highlighted.)

 

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The Footnote, or lower part of the Nutrition Facts Panel

Foootnote section of label, indicating values for 2000 and 2500 calorie diets. (#5 on sample label)

Note the * used after the heading "%Daily Value" on the Nutrition Facts label.

It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which tells you "%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet".

This statement must be on all food labels. But the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small.

When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn't change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans - it is not about a specific food product.

Look at the amounts circled in red in the footnote - these are the Daily Values (DV) for each nutrient listed and are based on public health experts' advice. DVs are recommended levels of intakes.

DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Note how the DVs for some nutrients change, while others (for cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.

How the Daily Values Relate to the %DVs

Look at the example below for another way to see how the Daily Values (DVs) relate to the %DVs and dietary guidance. For each nutrient listed there is a DV, a %DV, and dietary advice or a goal. If you follow this dietary advice, you will stay within public health experts' recommended upper or lower limits for the nutrients listed, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

Examples of DVs versus %DVs

Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet

Nutrient

DV

%DV

Goal

Total Fat

65g

= 100%DV

Less than

Sat Fat

20g

= 100%DV

Less than

Cholesterol

300mg

= 100%DV

Less than

Sodium

2400mg

= 100%DV

Less than

Total Carbohydrate

300g

= 100%DV

At least

Dietary Fiber

25g

= 100%DV

At least

Upper Limit - Eat "Less than"...

The nutrients that have "upper daily limits" are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example above.

Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below - eat "less than" - the Daily Value nutrient amounts listed per day.

For example, the DV for Saturated fat (in the yellow section) is 20g. This amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. What is the goal or dietary advice? To eat "less than" 20 g or 100%DV for the day.<

Lower Limit - Eat "At least"...

Now look at the section in blue where dietary fiber is listed. The DV for dietary fiber is 25g, which is 100% DV. This means it is recommended that you eat "at least" this amount of dietary fiber per day.

The DV for Total Carbohydrate (section in white) is 300g or 100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories, but can vary, depending on your daily intake of fat and protein.

Now let's look at the %DVs.

The Daily Values are based on expert dietary advice about how much, or how little, of some key nutrients you should eat each day, depending on whether you eat 2,000 or 2,500 calories a day.

Footnote section of food label with total fat circled. Example:

look at the Total Fat information in the footnote. It tells you that if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet, you should eat less than 65g of fat in all the foods you eat in a day. By doing this, you will follow nutrition experts' advice to consume no more than 30 percent of your daily calories from fat. Because the DV for total fat is "less than 65g," this is the same thing as saying, to keep your total fat intake for the day below 100%DV.

Footnote section of food label with cholesterol and sodium circled.If you consume 2,500 calories per day, the Footnote shows you how your daily values would change for some nutrients but not for others. The Daily Values for Cholesterol (300mg) and Sodium (2,400mg sodium) remain the same no matter how many calories you eat. But recommended levels of intake for other nutrients do depend on how many calories you consume.

Remember: %DVs listed on the top half of the food label are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet, not a 2,500 calorie diet.

Comparison Example #1

Below are two kinds of milk- one is "Reduced Fat," the other is chocolate "Nonfat" milk.

Each serving size is one cup. Which has more calories? Which is higher in fat and saturated fat?

 

REDUCED FAT MILK (2% Milk fat)

CHOCOLATE NONFAT MILK

Label of lowfat milk (2% milkfat) reading 120 calories, 8%DV fat and 15%DV saturated fat.

Label of chocolate nonfat milk reading 80 calories, 0%DV fat and 0%DV saturated fat.

Comparison Example #2

Below are two kinds of milk- one is "Reduced Fat," the other is chocolate "Nonfat" milk.

Each serving size is one cup. Which has more calcium? 

 

REDUCED FAT MILK
2% Milk fat Label of lowfat milk (2% milkfat) reading 30%DV calcium.

CHOCOLATE NONFAT MILK

 Label of chocolate nonfat milk reading 30%DV calcium.

 

Answer: As you can see, they both have the same amount of calcium, but the nonfat milk has no saturated fat and has 40 calories less per serving than the reduced fat milk.

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The above opinionated views and information serves to educated and informed consumer . The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. .It should not replaced professional advise and consultation. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions

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