The nutrition facts label on your favorite breakfast cereal tells you it's full
of vitamins and minerals. So it must be healthy, right?
Just because a food is high in vitamins doesn't mean it's healthy overall. Sure,
it's great that your favorite cereal gives you a shot of vitamins and minerals. But
what if it's also loaded with sugar?
Eating healthy means choosing lots of different types of food throughout the day
to get all the nutrients you need, such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber,
and — yes — even fat.
So how do you figure all this out? Thank goodness for food labels!
Your Cheat Sheet to Good Eats
Labels give you information that can help you decide what to choose as part of
an overall healthy eating plan. For example, it may be OK to eat a sugary cereal if
you make up for it by not eating much sugary stuff for the rest of the day. Checking
the labels on foods can alert you when a food is high in something like sugar so you
can be prepared to make tradeoffs.
Food labels provide more than just nutrition facts, though. They also tell you
what's in a packaged food (i.e., the ingredients). Some food labels also state which
country the food came from, whether the food is organic, and certain health claims.
So who decides what information goes on a food label? In the United States, it's
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). These
agencies require that all food labels show the same nutrition and health information.
This allows consumers to compare different foods and make the choices that are right
The FDA and USDA regulate any health claims that companies make on their food labels.
When a food says "light" ("lite") or "low fat" on the label, it must meet strict government
definitions in order to make that claim. Foods that are labeled "USDA organic" are
required to have at least 95% organic ingredients.
Making Food Labels Work for You
The first step in making food labels work for you is to look at the entire label.
If you focus on only one part — like calories or vitamins — you may not
be getting the full story, like how much sugar or fat is in the product. (Check out
our mac and cheese example below to see why the full story is important.)
Always start with the serving size amount. That's because all the information on
the rest of the label — from calories to vitamins — is based on that amount.
Take note of how much a serving is (e.g., 1 cup, 8 oz). Sometimes a serving size
will be way less than you're used to eating — like only half a cup of cereal.
So make sure you check what it is!
The label will also list how many servings are in the package. Even things that
seem like they'd be a single serving, such as a bottle of juice or packet of chips,
may contain more than one serving. If you eat or drink the whole thing, you're getting
more vitamins and minerals but you're also getting way more calories, sugar, fat,
and other stuff that you might not want.
A calorie is a way to measure how much energy a food provides to your body. The
number on the food label shows how many calories are in one serving of that food.
To get a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat each day, check out the personalized
plan calculator on the U.S. government's ChooseMyPlate
The calories from fat number tells you how many calories in that serving come from
fat. For most people, about 30% of all the calories they eat in a day should come
from fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, about 600 of these calories should come
More Stats to Know
Percent Daily Value
These percentages show the amounts of nutrients an average person will get from
eating one serving of that food. For the purposes of food labels, the government chose
an "average" person as someone who needs 2,000 calories a day. So if the label on
a particular food shows it provides 25% of vitamin D, that 25% is for a person who
eats 2,000 calories a day.
The percent daily value information can be complicated. But one thing it makes
easy is showing at a glance if a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. Here's
If a food has a daily value of 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered to be
low in that nutrient.
A food is a good source of a nutrient if the percent daily value is between 10%
If the food has 20% or more of the daily value, it is considered an excellent
source of that nutrient.
Total fat shows how much fat is in a single serving of food. Although
eating too much fat can lead to obesity and health problems, our bodies do need some
fat every day. Fats are an important source of energy and provide insulation and cushioning
for the skin, bones, and internal organs. Fat also distributes and helps the body
store certain vitamins.
Fat is usually measured in grams. A good rule of thumb for keeping to the 30% calories
from fat rule is to check the label and choose foods that have less than 3 grams of
fat or less for every 100 calories in a serving.
Some fats are better than others. Unsaturated fats, which are
found in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish, are often called "good fats." That's because
they don't raise cholesterol levels like saturated fats and trans
fats do. Both saturated and trans fats are considered "bad" because they
can increase a person's risk for developing heart disease. These types of fat are
solid at room temperature (picture them clogging your arteries).
Saturated fats usually come from animal products like cheese, meats, and ice cream.
Trans fats are naturally found in these foods too, but they are also in vegetable
oils that have been specially treated (hydrogenated) so they are solid at room temperature
— like shortening. The amount of saturated and trans fats that are in a food
are shown below total fat on the nutrition facts label. Less than 10% of calories
should come from saturated fats and try to keep trans fats as low as possible.
Cholesterol isn't entirely bad for you — it's important to production of
vitamin D and some hormones, and to building many other substances in the body. The
liver manufactures most of the cholesterol a person needs, but cholesterol is also
found in the foods we eat.
Blood cholesterol comes in two major types: HDL (the "good" kind) and LDL (the
"bad" kind). Too much LDL cholesterol in a person's blood increases the risk of heart
disease. So it's a good idea for even teens to watch how much cholesterol they eat,
along with saturated and trans fats, which tend to raise levels of LDL cholesterol
in the blood.
More Stats to Know (continued)
Sodium is a component of salt. Almost all foods contain sodium because it adds
flavor and helps preserve food. Processed, packaged, and canned foods usually have
more sodium than freshly made foods.
Small amounts of sodium keep proper body fluid balance. Sodium also helps the body
transmit electrical signals through nerves. But too much sodium can increase water
retention and blood pressure in people who are sensitive to it.
This amount covers all carbohydrates, including fiber and sugar. The best sources
of carbohydrates are fruits and vegetables, along with whole-grain foods like cereals,
breads, pasta, and brown rice. Most of your daily calorie intake should come from
Sugars are found in most foods. When a food contains lots of sugar, the calories
can add up quickly. Soda, snack foods and other foods that are high in added sugar
are considered "empty calories" because they usually don't offer a lot of other nutrients.
Sugars are listed separately under Total Carbohydrates. Checking sugar quantities
on labels can be really eye opening. Often there's way more than you'd expect. For
example, sometimes manufacturers cut back on fat but add sugar to keep a food tasting
good. With a little label study, you may notice that some low-fat foods have nearly
as many calories as their regular versions.
Fiber is not digested and helps keep your digestive system healthy. Fiber can also
help reduce cholesterol levels. Best of all, fiber has no calories and it can help
you feel full. So check the label and pick foods that have at least 3 grams of fiber
Most of the body — including muscles, skin, and the immune system —
is made up of protein. If the body doesn't get enough fat and carbohydrates, it can
use protein for energy. So be sure the foods you eat give you some protein.
Vitamins and Minerals
It goes without saying that you want to choose foods that are high in a variety
of vitamins and minerals. The FDA requires food manufacturers to include information
about vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Sometimes you'll see other important
vitamins and minerals listed on the label, especially if the product contains significant
amounts. Some vitamins — like vitamin C — are water soluble, which means
that the body can't store them so they need to be consumed daily.
Food labels can't tell you what foods to eat — that's your decision! But
they can help you find foods that taste good and treat your body right.