Health Information

Deciphering the Nutrition Facts Label: Do You Know What You're Eating?

Food nutrition label How much calcium is in macaroni and cheese? Which brand of macaroni and cheese has the least fat? The best way to find out this information and more is to read the food label. All food packages bear the Nutrition Facts label, which is full of useful information to help you eat more healthfully.

Let's look at a sample label for macaroni and cheese to find out what is inside. Keep in mind the differences between packaged and prepared values. Prepared values include milk and butter (or margarine) that is needed for cooking this particular food. Prepared values are based on specific measurements provided in the instructions.

Serving Size

Serving Size: 2/3 cup
Servings Per Container: almost 3

The serving size tells you the amount of food that the nutrient information given on the label is based on. Pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings are in a package, and compare it to how much you actually eat. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals 2/3 cup. If you ate the entire package, you would consume nearly 3 times the amount of the nutrients listed on the label.

Calories and Calories From Fat

Amount Per Serving
Calories 260         Calories from Fat 25

Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from food. Calories come from three sources: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. The label tells you how many of the calories in one serving come from fat.

Important Nutrients

The top half of the nutrition label lists nutrients that can strongly affect your health. They can be divided into two groups: those to limit and those to get enough of.

Nutrients to Limit

Total Fat 3 g 5%
    Saturated Fat 4 g 8%
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 10 mg 3%
Sodium 570 mg 24%

These are the nutrients that can have adverse effects on your health if they are eaten in excess. For example, too much fat, too much cholesterol, or too much sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and high blood pressure. Saturated fat and trans fat is of particular concern. Unsaturated fats, which are not required to be listed on a label, are a healthier type of fat. Most of the fat you eat should be the unsaturated type (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).

Another kind of fat on the label is trans fats. Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as found in shortening and some margarines, which are commonly used in baked goods. Trans fats, along with saturated fats and cholesterol increase the "bad" lipids in your blood, putting you at higher risk for heart disease.

Eating too many calories in general can lead to overweight and obesity. Being overweight is a risk factor for many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Therefore, it is essential to also note the total calories listed on the label.

Nutrients to Get Enough of

Dietary Fiber 1 g 4%
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 10%
Iron 10%

These are a few of the nutrients that are beneficial to our health, and many Americans may not get enough. These include vitamins A and C, the minerals calcium and iron, and fiber. Calcium can help decrease the risk of osteoporosis, while vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Fiber, which helps to maintain regularity, is also believed to help decrease the risk of certain chronic diseases.

Total Carbohydrate

Here, you can find the total grams of carbohydrate in the product. One gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories. Total carbohydrate includes dietary fiber and sugars, which are both listed on the label, as well as other forms of carbohydrate.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The percent daily values are listed in the right-hand column of the Nutrition Facts label. These percentages tell you whether the nutrients in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to your total daily nutrient intake—5% or less is "a little" and 20% or more is "a lot."

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
 Calories2,0002,500
Total FatLess than65 g80 g
Saturated FatLess than20 g25 g
CholesterolLess than300 mg300 mg
SodiumLess than2,400 mg2,400 mg
Total Carbohydrate 300 g375 g
Dietary Fiber 25 g30 g

The percent daily values are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet and are outlined in a table below the Nutrition Facts label. The information in this table is exactly the same on all food products. (Small food products may not have this table if there is not enough room to display it). These values are based on expert dietary advice for the amount of certain nutrients you should consume over the course of the day.

The label is designed to guide you on what your daily intake of certain nutrients should be. This can help you track your intake based on what is accepted as expert advice. For example, you want to eat less than 65 grams of total fat per day if you have a 2,000 calorie goal. Note that you need to keep saturated fats at a minimum, while focusing on healthier fats. Other substances that are harmful in excess, such as cholesterol and sodium, are the same for both 2,000 and 2,500 calories.

The daily values provide a good starting point to refer to. For example, just knowing that one serving of macaroni and cheese contains 3 grams of fat is not very helpful. But to know that this 3 grams accounts for 5% of the total amount you should have in a day is a more useful way of interpreting it.

The percent daily value makes it easy for you to compare the nutrient contents of different brands of similar foods. But first check the serving size to see that it is the same; serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of food. This can help you choose the product with the lower percentage of fat or the greater percentage of calcium, for example.

Sugars and Protein

There are no daily values for simple sugars and proteins.

% Daily Value*
Sugars 7 g  
Protein 9 g  

There is no DV for simple sugar because there is no specific recommendation for the amount of sugar we should eat each day. The amount of sugar listed here includes both natural sugars (such as those that occur in fruits and dairy products), as well as sugars added during processing. To determine which type of sugars a food product contains, check the ingredient list.

Usually, there is no DV given for protein. This is because protein intake is not a major health concern for adults and children over the age of four. However, if a food package makes a specific claim about its protein intake, such as "high in protein," the %DV must then be included. The average American eats plenty of protein in his or her daily diet. Each gram of protein provides four calories.

Calcium

Calcium 10%

The DV for calcium is 1,000 (milligrams) mg per day. To determine the exact amount of calcium in a product, you will need to do a little math—just multiply the %DV by 10. If a container of yogurt contains 30% DV; multiply this by 10, which will give you the value of 300 mg.

The DV is 1,000 mg, which is the recommendation for people ages 19-50. However, adolescents (ages 9-18) need 1,300 mg per day, and people age 51 and older need 1,200 mg each day. For these groups, strive for 130% and 120% of the daily value, respectively.

  • Choose My Plate—United States Department of Agriculture

    http://www.choosemyplate.gov

  • Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

    http://www.eatright.org

  • Canada's Food Guide

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Dietitians of Canada

    http://www.dietitians.ca

  • Calcium. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional. Updated November 21, 2013. Accessed October 1, 2014.

  • Duyff RL, ADA. The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing; 1998.

  • How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm. Updated June 18, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2014.

  • Hypertension. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated September 30, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2014.

  • Nutrition facts label. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/downloads/NutritionFactsLabel.pdf. Accessed October 1, 2014.

  • Kraft dinners—macaroni and cheese dinner—original flavor. Kraft Foods website. Available at: http://www.kraftrecipes.com/Products/ProductInfoDisplay.aspx?siteid=1&product=2100065883. Accessed October 1, 2014.