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Understanding Nutrition Labels in 6 Easy Steps

One of the most helpful tools for making smart food choices is the Nutrition Facts label. Every food package has one—and it can provide a lot of important information. Here’s how to read it.
  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Serving Size

    Check the serving size

    The serving size is a specific amount of food or drink using a common measurement, as well as how many servings are in the container or package. Note that 1 package may contain more than 1 serving and more than the amount of calories, fat, and other nutrients listed for a single serving.

    The difference between a portion and a serving

    A serving size is standardized—it describes a specific amount of food or drink. The serving size often equates to the amount recommended in consumer education materials. A portion may vary—it is the amount of food you choose to eat at one time.

  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Calories

    Check calories

    This number is helpful when you’re trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight. Based on the General Guide to Calories and a 2,000-calorie diet, 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories or more is high for snacks.

    Cutting calories

    One healthy way to cut calories is to reduce the amount of added sugars, fats, and alcohol—because they have few or no essential nutrients.

    Food Fact

    Calorie-free means less than 5 calories per serving.
    Low calorie means 40 calories or less per serving.

  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Sodium, Fat, and Cholesterol

    Limit sodium, fat, and cholesterol

    Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase the risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers. Health experts recommend keeping saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as low as possible for a nutritionally balanced diet.

    Watch the sodium in your diet

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt) a day. For people with chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and for African Americans, or middle-aged and older adults, the recommendation drops to no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

    Food Fact

    Sodium free or salt free means less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
    Low sodium means 140 mg of sodium or less.
    Reduced sodium or less sodium means at least 25% less sodium than the regular version.

    Healthy amounts of fat

    The recommended total fat intake for adults over 19 years of age is between 20% and 35% of calories per day.

    The type of fat makes a difference

    Consuming less than 10% of saturated fatty acids and replacing them with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can potentially protect your heart by lowering your blood cholesterol.

    Food Fact

    Low fat means 3 grams or less of total fat per serving.
    Low saturated fat means 1 gram or less of saturated fat and 15% or less of calories from saturated fat.
    Reduced fat means at least 25% less fat than the regular version.

    Cholesterol in food

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day. Reducing saturated fat in your diet may also reduce your cholesterol.

    Food Fact

    Cholesterol free means less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving and food contains 2 g or less saturated fat, per Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC).
    Low cholesterol means 20 mg of cholesterol or less and food contains 2 g or less saturated fat, per RACC.
    Reduced cholesterol or less cholesterol means at least 25% less cholesterol than a regular version of that food and food contains 2 g or less saturated fat, per RACC.

  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Vitamins and Minerals

    Get enough fiber, calcium, and iron

    Eating enough dietary fiber, calcium, and iron can help improve health and help reduce the risk of some health conditions. The label shows how much of these nutrients are in the food you eat.

    Healthy carbs

    Healthier foods provide higher amounts of dietary fiber and whole grains without added sugars.

    Food Fact

    Excellent source of fiber means 5 grams or more of fiber per serving.
    Good source of fiber means 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber per serving.

    Recommended daily allowances (RDA) for calcium and iron:

    Sex and Age  Calcium RDA
    Men 19-70 1,000 mg
    Men 70+ 1,200 mg
    Women 19-50 1,000 mg
    Women 50+ 1,200 mg
    Women who are pregnant 1,000 mg
    Women who are breastfeeding 1,000 mg

    Sex and Age  Iron RDA       
    Men 18+ 8 mg
    Men 70+ 8 mg
    Women 18+ 18 mg
    Women 50+ 8 mg
    Women who are pregnant 27 mg 
    Women who are breastfeeding 9 mg
  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Footnote

    Understanding the footnote section

    This footnote is found only on larger food packages and does not change from product to product. It shows the recommended dietary information for important nutrients based on 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets.

  • Reading Nutrition Labels: Daily Value

    Percent Daily Values

    The Percent Daily Values (or %DV on some labels) tells you how much of a specific nutrient 1 serving of food contains compared with what is recommended for the whole day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). Here’s a quick way to look at it: 5% Daily Value or less is low, and 20% Daily Value or more is high (for a 2,000-calorie diet). Checking Percent Daily Values can help you:

    • Make comparisons. You can check 2 brands of the same food to see which one has more or less nutrients per serving size. 
    • Check product claims. For example, you can use the Percent Daily Value to help you quickly distinguish one claim from another.

    Some nutrients do not have Percent Daily Values on the Nutrition Facts label. For instance, for protein, a Percent Daily Value is listed only if a claim such as high in protein is printed on the package. There is not a Percent Daily Value for sugars or trans fat. To limit these nutrients, consider comparing labels of similar products and choose the food with the lowest amount.