Nutrition labels give information about calories, serving sizes, and nutrients. Understanding what labels mean can help people choose foods and drinks to support a healthy weight and reduce the risk of diseases.

This article explains how to read a nutrition label, detailing four areas people should understand. It discusses calories, serving sizes, and percentage of daily value (%DV). It also looks at variations in labels and how to use them to support health.

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Nutrition labels are food information sources on packaging that inform consumers about what they are eating. They detail nutrients in the food or beverage and how this compares with what the government recommends people consume daily.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prioritizes nutrition initiatives as part of a national strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity. The new nutrition facts labels include calories, serving sizes, and more details as part of the initiative.

Nutrition labels help consumers to make quick, informed choices of what to eat as part of a healthy diet.

The serving size is at the top of the nutrition facts label. It details how many servings the food item contains and the serving size. The serving size reflects the amount people typically eat or drink in familiar units such as cups, pieces, or grams.

The FDA notes that the serving size is a point of reference rather than a recommendation of how much to eat or drink. People have different calorie and nutrient requirements depending on factors such as sex, age, and health conditions.

However, people should consider serving size to ensure they stay within healthy parameters for certain nutrients. For example, a carton of soup has four servings, and the serving size is 1 cup. If someone consumes half the carton, they need to multiply the calories, sugar, salt, etc., by two and see how much of the daily value for calories and nutrients this equates to.

What is better? Several small meals or fewer large ones?

Calories are the next fact that the nutrition label states. Calories measure how much energy someone gets from a serving of food or drink. If there are four servings in a packaged food and someone eats the whole package, they need to multiply the calories per serving by four to see how much energy they have consumed.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans outline estimated calorie needs based on sex, age, and physical activity levels. For example, they estimate that a sedentary male aged 21–60 needs 2,200–2,400 calories daily. A sedentary female of the same age requires 1,600–2,000 calories daily.

However, calorie needs are an estimation, and requirements can vary. For example, pregnant or lactating people and sportspeople may require more calories. On the other hand, those who are overweight or have obesity may need fewer calories to manage their weight.

The nutrition labels use a general guide of a 2,000 daily calorie diet to work out the daily values.

The FDA advises that someone can learn their estimated calorie needs using the MyPlate resource.

How many calories do I need per day?

The nutrients section of the nutrition facts label shows some essential nutrients that impact people’s health. Using the information, people can choose foods that contain more of the nutrients they need and less of those they need to limit.

The FDA advises which nutrients to increase and decrease:

Nutrients many people need less of include:

Nutrients many people need more of include:

The FDA bases these recommendations on nutrients lacking in the American diet and those which may lead to adverse health consequences if people overeat them.

For example, including enough calcium may reduce the risk of bone diseases such as osteoporosis, while overeating saturated fat may increase the risk of heart disease. Eating too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity and other health problems.

However, the amount of nutrients someone requires can vary according to their health status and other factors.

What are some high fiber foods?

A note about sugars

When looking at sugar in foods and drinks, there is a difference between total and added sugars. Total sugars include natural sugars in food and beverages, such as milk and fruit. However, experts have not established a daily value for total sugars.

Added sugars are those that manufacturers add during processing.

These include:

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories. Based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet, the FDA daily value for added sugars is 50 grams.

The nutrition facts label lists the daily value for single-ingredient sugars and syrups, such as pure honey and sugar, as a %DV for added sugars but lists the number of grams as total sugars. They often have a footnote that details grams and %DV.

The FDA does this to avoid implying the product contains extra sugars while also making clear that these products count as added sugars when consumers eat them.

How much sugar is in your food?

The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the daily value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. Daily values are the amounts of nutrients people should consume or not exceed daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Labels may express daily values in grams (g), milligrams (mg), or micrograms (mcg).

The %DV helps people to decide if a food or drink is high or low in a particular nutrient. There is no need for someone to do the math to work this out, as the nutrition label states this for them.

However, some nutrients such as total sugars or trans fats don’t have a %DV as experts have not established how much or little people should eat daily.

For protein, there is no %DV if the food does not make a claim about being high in protein and is for the general population aged over 4 years. The FDA state the reason for this is that protein is not a current health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age in the United States.

However, if manufacturers intend the food for infants and children under 4 years or claim it to be high in protein, it must list the %DV.

Lower and higher %DV

The FDA considers 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving as low.

Conversely, 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is high.

Therefore, using this information, people can see from the label if a food is low or high in certain nutrients and how much they contribute to their daily diet.

The FDA advises people to choose foods that are:

  • Higher in %DV for dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium
  • lower in %DV for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars

What are the benefits of eating healthily?

The FDA permits manufacturers to use other formats of the standard nutrition label. Two label variations are dual column labels and the single ingredient sugar label.

Dual-column labels

Dual-column labels detail information for products larger than a single serving but that people may consume in one sitting. The label gives nutrition information per package or container as well as per serving. This allows people to see how many calories and nutrients they consume if they eat a whole bag of pretzels that contains three servings, for example.

Single-ingredient sugar labels

Manufacturers display single-ingredient sugar labels on products such as packages of pure sugar or bottles of pure honey or maple syrup. These labels don’t detail the number of grams of added sugars but must display the % DV for added sugars. However, the label may also include a footnote with information on the gram amount and % DV for added sugars.

Manufacturers label single-ingredient sugar products in this way, so they inform people about sugar content without appearing to have added extra sugars.

People can use nutrition labels to manage their weight, increase their vitamins and minerals, or stay within macronutrient ratios that they may need for sports goals or special diets.

In addition, they can use the government’s advice on nutrition labels to avoid excessive salt, sugar, and saturated fat to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Some studies suggest that consumers look at labeling for products such as convenience foods, cereals, and snacks, which can influence them to make healthier choices. Other studies indicate that most people look at food labels and are able to use them to make healthy choices, but taste is still the most relevant factor.

Following the White House National Strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity in September 2022, the FDA initiated changes to food labeling as part of its nutrition initiatives.

These include updating the claim “healthy” and developing a healthy symbol, developing front-of-package food labeling, and exploring labeling for online grocery shopping.

Recent research suggests that the type of food label may be relevant, and many studies are investigating digital food labeling as a more effective way to increase the nation’s healthy eating.

A guide to a healthy, balanced diet.

Reading nutrition labels is a helpful way to plan a diet and choose healthier food and drinks.

Understanding the basics of calories, serving sizes, nutrients, and daily values, can help someone manage their weight, nutrition goals, and risk of chronic disease.

Although taste is an important factor, research suggests that food labels are useful in helping people improve their health.