The food label was developed and is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is designed to help consumers choose foods to meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid.
The nutrition facts panel includes the following information:
Serving size Similar foods have standard serving sizes, based on the amounts people generally eat. This makes it easier to compare foods. Consumers can compare their serving sizes with the amount on the label and adjust as needed. All the information on the nutrition facts panel refers to this serving size.
CaloriesThe label shows the number of calories in one serving of the food. It also shows how many of these calories come from fat.
Percent daily valueThe percent daily value shows how one serving of a food fits nutritionally into a daily diet of 2,000 calories. For example, is 25 grams of fat per serving a lot or a little? How about 500 milligrams of sodium per serving?
Consumers can use the percent daily value to compare the nutrients in a given food with their daily needs. The percent daily values shown on the label are based on the 2,000 calorie diet. At the bottom of the label, average daily needs are given for both a 2,000 and a 2,500 calorie diet.
Depending on age, gender, and activity level, some people will need more or less of a nutrient than what is on the food label. Amounts can be estimated using current nutritional recommendations.
Nutrient list and amountsCalories, fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and other nutrients are listed. The nutrients listed were chosen because they relate to current health concerns, such as coronary artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer.
Listing these nutrients on the label allows people to compare values across products. The goal is to consume no more than 100% of the daily value for fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and at least 100% of the daily value for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium.
Daily values footnoteThis footnote shows the levels of nutrients that should be consumed each day, based on diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories. It shows maximum amounts for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It shows target amounts for total carbohydrate and fiber. This footnote is the same on every label.
Ingredient listAn ingredient list is required on all food labels for foods with more than one ingredient. It tells the consumer what is in the food.
Food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients by weight from the most to the least. People who have food allergies or sensitivities can find useful information in the ingredient list.
A nutrient claim helps consumers easily find foods that meet their specific nutritional goals. Terms like low, reduced, or free must meet legal definitions. Nutrient claims follow the same pattern for each food so people don't have to remember them all.
For example, low-fat is defined as having 3 grams or less of fat per serving. Whether the food is a box of crackers or a loaf of bread, low-fat will mean the same thing.
Nutrient claimsNutrient claims usually appear on the front of the packaged or processed food, and are defined for a single serving. These claims are optional, so it's up to the manufacturers to put them on food packages.
Health claimsA health claim is a statement on the food package that describes the relationship between a nutrient and a lowered risk for some diseases or conditions. This information is an optional part of the label.
In order to make a health claim, the food has to meet certain nutritional guidelines and the claim must be supported by scientific evidence. The FDA strictly regulates health claims.
To date, 11 health claims have been approved. When reading health claims, consumers should remember that diet is only one factor in the risk for a disease or chronic condition.
Food labels are a crucial part of designing a healthy diet. They allow the consumer to make informed choices about the foods they eat and to compare foods. A wise consumer doesn't make choices without looking at the food label.
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Understanding Food Labels, American Dietetic Association, 1994.
The New Food Labels, American Institute for Cancer Research, 1993.
Are You Ready for New Food Labels?, American Dietetic Association, 1993.
Label Facts for Healthful Eating, M Boyd-Browne, 1993.
Krause's Food, Nutrition,&Diet Therapy, K Mahan and S Escott-Stump, 2000.