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Food Labels

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, protein, 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

Nutrition Facts labels give you information that can help you decide what to choose as part of an overall healthy eating plan.

Food labels provide more than just nutrition facts. They also tell you what's in a packaged food (i.e., the ingredients). People with food allergies need to check ingredient lists to avoid foods that can cause an allergic reaction.

Some food labels also state which country the food came from, whether the food is organic, and certain health claims.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) also regulate any health claims that companies make on their food labels. When a food says “healthy,” "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" have at least 95% organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients or irradiation.

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 added sugar or fat is in the product.

Serving Size

Always start with the serving size. That's because all the information on the rest of the label — from calories to vitamins — is based on that amount.

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 1 serving. If you eat or drink the whole thing, you're getting more vitamins and minerals but you're also getting more calories, sugar, fat, and other stuff that you might not want.

Calories

A calorie is a way to measure how much energy a food provides to your body. The number of calories listed on the food label shows how many calories are in 1 serving. If you eat 2 servings, you need to double the calories listed on the label to know how many calories you ate.

Percent Daily Value

Percent daily value is most useful for seeing if a food is high or low in nutrients:

  • A food with 5% or less of a nutrient is low in that nutrient.
  • A food with 10%–19% of a nutrient is a good source of that nutrient.
  • A food with 20% or more of a nutrient is high in that nutrient.

The information on food labels is based on an average adult diet of 2,000 calories per day. The actual number of calories and nutrients that kids need will depend on their age, weight, gender, and level of physical activity. (For more guidance, check out the USDA's MyPlate.)

Fat

Total fat shows how much fat is in a single serving of food. Although too much fat can lead to health problems, our bodies do need some fat every day.

Some fats are better than others. Unsaturated fats 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 chance of developing heart disease.

Less than 10% of calories should come from saturated fats and try to keep trans fats as low as possible (less than 1%).

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is important to make vitamin D and some hormones, and to building healthy cells. The liver makes most of the cholesterol a person needs, but cholesterol is also found in the foods we eat.

Cholesterol can become a problem if the amount in the blood is too high, increasing a person's chances of having a heart attack or stroke later in life.

Sodium

Sodium is a component of salt. Almost all foods contain sodium. Processed, packaged, and canned foods usually have more sodium than fresh foods.

Sodium helps keep proper body fluid balance. But too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure.

Total Carbohydrate

Total carbohydrates includes dietary fiber, total sugar, and added sugars. Some foods naturally contain sugar, like fruit and milk. Snack foods, candy, and soda, on the other hand, often have added sugars. Added sugars add calories without important nutrients.

Checking for added sugar on labels can be really eye opening. Often there's more than you'd expect, even in healthy foods, like yogurt, granola bars, and pasta sauces.

Fiber

Fiber has no calories and it can help you feel full. Fiber is not digested and helps prevent constipation. Fiber can also help lower cholesterol. So check the label and pick foods that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Protein

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.

Vitamins and Minerals

Some important vitamins and minerals are included on the Nutrition Facts label:

  • Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium to build bones and keep them strong. It also plays a part in heart health and fighting infection.
  • Calcium is needed for strong bones. It keeps nerves and muscles working and the heart healthy.
  • Iron helps the body make new, healthy red blood cells. Not enough iron leads to anemia.
  • Potassium is important for fluid balance and helps control blood pressure.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2022