How To Read Food Labels

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 1:26pm

By Dena McDowell, MS, RD

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition created standardized food labels to help consumers understand what they are buying. The purpose of standardized labels is to help Americans make better food choices, practice portion control, and to encourage food consumption that reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer. Consumers can also look at food labels and compare them to nutrient claims on the front of packaging. All packaged foodswith the exception of fresh meat, poultry, fish, and fruits and vegetablesmust have a food label. As of 2006, the food industry must also list amount of trans fats. Below are things to look at when analyzing a food label.

Serving size

Listed at the top of the label the serving size indicates the standard size most appropriate for the package (i.e. cups, pieces, ounces). It is followed by a metric unit measurement. Look at the serving size and ask yourself how much of the food you will actually eat. The calorie and nutrition breakdown is based on the serving size. For example, if the package contains 2 servings and you eat the whole thing, then you should double the calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and protein.

Amount per serving

Located below the serving size, this section lists the calories and fat calories Calories mean the energy derived by eating the food. Calories from fat are the percentage of calories from the fat in the food. A goal is to keep the percentage of fat calories below 20% to consider the food a healthy choice.


This category includes total fat (bold on the label) as well as the types of fat (saturated and trans fat) and cholesterol. You should limit the saturated fat to no more than 20 grams per day. Currently there are no firm recommendations on the amount of trans fat, but it is recommended that you eat as little trans fat as possible. If the product contains cholesterol, the amount in milligrams will be listed per serving.


All labels carry information on sodium. Processed foods such as soup, crackers, and chips are high in sodium. Eating a diet high in sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, especially in those who are overweight. The average American eats about 4000 milligrams of sodium a day. The USDA recommends limiting sodium to 2400 milligrams a day.

Carbohydrates and fiber

Carbohydrates are broken down into total grams of carbohydrate, dietary fiber and sugar. Diabetics need to monitor all three of these categories. Look for lower sugar and higher fiber products whenever possible. It is recommended to consume 25 grams of fiber a day and 300 grams of total carbohydrates in a day for the average American.


No established recommendations for protein have been created by the USDA. This category will tell how many grams of protein are in a serving.

Vitamins and minerals

Each food label provides a percentage of vitamin A and C, calcium, and iron as compared to the daily value set for each vitamin and mineral. For example, the daily value for calcium is 1000 milligrams a day. If a product contains 20% of calcium in 1 serving, then by eating this product you will get 200 milligrams of calcium.

Dietary recommendations

Dietary guidelines based on a 2000 calorie diet are provided for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and fiber. It is recommended that Americans consume no more than 65 grams of total fat, 20 grams of saturated fat, 300 milligrams of cholesterol, 2400 milligrams of sodium, and at least 300 grams of carbohydrates and 25 grams of fiber per day.

For a quick guide to reading food labels see the following article from TheDietChannel: Food label reading: suggestions for a quick analysis.