Knowing how to read food labels will enable you to compare different foods and make choices that are right for you. The more practice you get, the better you will become in using them to plan a healthier diet. Reading labels is especially important if you have a condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, and want or need to follow a special diet.

Who decides what information goes on a food label? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) require food companies to label their products with nutritional content.

"Today, ready access to reliable information about the calorie and nutrient content of food is even more important, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the United States," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA.

The Nutrition Facts label, which appears on most packaged foods and beverages, provides detailed information about nutrients (including the amount of fat, sodium and fiber). The FDA and USDA also regulate health claims that companies make on their packaging. For instance, products contained inside packages stating "light" ("lite") or "low fat" must match government definitions of those terms.

One label item that is helpful and important to comprehend is "percent Daily Value."

Highs and Lows

The "percent Daily Value" spells out the exact percentage of recommended daily intake in a single serving of a food product. The FDA requires that most nutrients be expressed in this way on the Nutrition Facts Label so that consumers can balance their diets. Quickly and easily, all the percent Daily Values can be read to determine whether a product has a high or low amount of calories and nutrients.

The rule of thumb is 20 percent Daily Value or more is high and 5 percent Daily Value or less is low.

For beneficial nutrients, like fiber or calcium, you can use the percent Daily Value to choose products that contain higher amounts. Research has shown that eating a diet rich in fiber may lower your chances of getting heart disease and some types of cancer. And eating foods containing calcium may help lower your risk of getting the bone-weakening disease, osteoporosis. Certainly, foods that list water soluble vitamins at the high end of percent Daily Value are better for you than those on the low end.

The opposite is true for unhealthy nutrients, such as saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Saturated fat is the main dietary ingredient that raises low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol and increases your risk for coronary heart disease. Trans fat and dietary cholesterol also contribute significantly. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally in some animal-based foods, though trans fat is also created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods, including crackers, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, and baked goods, which are made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils.

Although no percent Daily Value exists for trans fat, you can use the label to find out whether saturated fat and cholesterol are high or low. Simply compare products by looking at the total amount of saturated fat plus trans fat to find the one lowest in both of these types of fat. Be wary, though, of possible deceptions.


In order to make their products look low in fat or calories, food companies frequently list information based on tiny, unrealistic servings. In many cases, a serving size is much less than the amount provided; this is often the case with a bag of snacks. The label may read "170 calories per serving," but if the bag contains two servings and you will in all likelihood eat the entire contents of a bag, then really you will be consuming 340 calories.

According to FDA policy, "natural" stamped on a package means a product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients. On the other hand, "healthy" means the product has met certain criteria that limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, while also meeting specific minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other beneficial nutrients.

Any package that claims "no trans fat" must, by law, contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. Nutritional labels of many products that advertise themselves as containing "no trans fat" simply express a serving size in a small enough quantity to make such a claim.

Organic food differs from non-organic by how it is grown; any food labeled "organic" must meet the requirements set by the USDA. For instance, any label that reads "made with organic ingredients" must have a minimum of 70 percent of its ingredients meeting that standard, yet only 70 percent. Any product with a USDA "organic" label must contain 95 percent or more ingredients that have been grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, among other standards. That said, the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. And many small farms produce food organically without making such claims on their labels.

Ask Again!

For years now, many Americans have wanted foods to be labeled to indicate the absence or presence of genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients. Meanwhile, the biotech industry has vigorously lobbied against such practices. Within the past few days, though, the USDA approved a label for meat and liquid egg products that includes a claim about the absence of GE products. This is not the government requiring such labels; it is simply the USDA conceding that the Non-GMO Project, after appropriate testing and being paid to do so, can put their label on foods. The Non-GMO Project is a certification organization that verifies foods don't contain GE or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

When discussing labels for raw foods, Camille Brewer, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, said "Industry tells us all the time, 'if consumers ask, we'll give it to them.'" Shouldn't our government also respond to our requests?