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Nutrition Label Breakdown: What You Need to Know

When you purchase foods, you may find yourself flipping over the packaging and reading the nutrition label. Many use this label to check ingredient lists or calorie count, but few know the real reasoning behind these labels. The need for nutrition labels has grown increasingly important over the years.

Nutrition labels are a requirement for foods produced in the United States. They have been regulated by entities such as the FDA and USDA to offer full disclosure to consumers. These labels will require nutrients, calories, ingredients, and more to be listed on all food products.

Understanding nutrition labels can be challenging if you are unfamiliar with the items listed. We will break down what is on nutrition labels and the importance of this labeling. To learn more, keep reading!

Article Contents

What is on a Nutrition Label?

When purchasing and eating foods, you have probably noticed the nutrition labels. While some are more concerned with nutrition labels than others, it is important that everyone understands the importance of these lists. The nutrition label is required by the Food and Drug Administration or FDA and should be on most packaged foods and beverages.

Those with health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol will benefit greatly from reading food labels. This is also critical for those who are allergic to certain ingredients as it is important to monitor what you are eating closely. Nutrition labels are great to reference if you are trying to live a healthier life and to compare brands.

What are Five Things Listed on a Nutrition Label?

If you have looked at nutrition labels, you more than likely have noticed that they are all very similar. While the ingredients, percentages, and other numbers will change based on what the item is, the overall structure of the label will be the same. There is a lot of information on a nutrition label, but the five main things to look for are:

Servings Per Container

When you purchase a packaged food, you will find a servings per container number on the container. This will give you a basic serving size and the overall number of servings that are in the entire container. Unless you are purchasing a smaller packaged item, there will usually be several servings per container.

Some things to keep in mind about reading the servings per container are:

  • Containers can show both a column for each individual serving and a column that shows the percentages for the entire box. For example, you may see 100 calories per serving and 800 calories per an eight-serving box.
  • The serving size itself is based on the average amount that is eaten at one time. It can serve as a base but is not necessarily a recommendation or requirement for how much you should eat.
  • Likely, you will find that the serving size is listed in a basic measurement, making it easier to understand. For example, you may see a serving is a cup, tablespoon, slice, or a certain number of the food in hand.

If you are interested in comparing calories, looking at the amount per serving size is a great place to start. It is important to keep in mind that this is just a basic measurement and your own preference on how much you eat may differ from the label.

The Number of Calories

While we touched on this slightly, the calories per serving and the calories per container are listed on the container. This will vary depending on the food at hand, often healthier foods will be lower in calories. Referencing the calories in the food is a great way to make informed choices when it comes to your overall health.

Some things to keep in mind about the calories listed on the nutrition label are:

  • Each individual will have a different number of calories that work best for their lifestyle. The average daily number of calories an adult should consume is 2,000. Your age, activity level, sex, height, weight, and more will alter the number of calories needed.
  • Prepackaged foods can become very high calorie very quickly. Most serving sizes that are around 100 calories are considered low to moderate in calorie.
  • If you find that a serving size contains 400 calories or more, this could be a higher number and may be something you should avoid.

We will break down calories a bit more later, but this number essentially refers to the energy supplied from all sources in the food. This is the amount of energy needed to burn off the food. By eating around the number of calories your body uses daily, you should maintain or lose weight.

Nutrients Found in the Food

Of course, when you think of a nutrition label you automatically think of nutrients. Each of these labels has the exact nutrients you will find in the food and how much of each. These nutrition labels must have the following list of nutrients shown:

  • Total Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Trans Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Total Sugars
  • Added Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • It may also list monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar alcohols, vitamins, thiamin, and minerals.

Monitoring your nutrients is great if you are hoping to reach certain amounts each day. For example, those who are lower on iron will want to seek out foods that are higher in iron. Referencing the nutrition label is an easy way to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need daily.

Percent Daily Value

Going hand in hand with this, you will find the percent daily value or %DV listed on each nutrition label. This will be the number each nutrient in the food contributes to the total needed in a daily diet. You need a certain amount of each nutrient daily and this will show the percentage of this amount the particular food offers.

Some things to keep in mind about the %DV listed on each nutrition label are:

  • This is a percentage of each nutrient, which means that the percentages will not add up to a certain number. Rather each nutrient has a differing daily recommended amount. Some nutrients will only require micrograms while others may need more daily.
  • Some nutrition labels do not show this %DV but rather show the number of grams of each nutrient. For example, instead of having 8% saturated fat, it may show 1.5g.
  • You can monitor the percentages to better understand the health value of the food. If an item contains a large percentage of your daily fat, it may be best to avoid this item or highly monitor the overall intake.

Once again, your nutrition numbers may not be the same as another individuals and it is important to understand your body. By speaking to your doctor, you can learn more about what nutrients you need more of and which you may want to avoid.

An Ingredient List

The final thing that is required on all nutrition labels is a list of the ingredients found in the food. This ingredient list can be a very helpful tool for those who have food allergies and need to avoid certain ingredients. The ingredient list will show each ingredient by its most commonly used name, but at times these can be a bit hard to understand.

In most cases, the more organic or natural a food is, the easier the ingredient list is to understand. If you see several ingredients you do not recognize, it may be a more processed food item. Ingredients on nutrition labels are listed by weight, those ingredients with the highest amount of weight will be first and then in descending order.

A good way to keep track of all the nutrients is to use an online nutrition calculator. It will help you keep track of you daily nutrients to help you stay on track to meet your health goals.

Why do We Have Nutrition Labels?

This leads into the big question of why nutrition labels are so important and used in the first place. In the past, nutrition labels were not necessary, which made it difficult for those who were purchasing food to understand what they were actually consuming. Of course, with the rise of prepackaged food, the need for ingredient lists, nutritional values, and more was critical.

A basic history of nutrition labels is:

  • In the 1850s, food labeling became a safety precaution for consumers. This was due to a rise in foodborne illnesses. A highly publicized death due to foodborne illness was President Zachary Taylor who passed away due to contaminated foods.
  • Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA in 1862. This created stricter guidelines for food handling and processing.
  • Most Americans were still growing and preparing foods at home until the 1960s. However, a shift to prepared products led to the 1966 decision by the USDA to mandate a list of ingredients be on many products. This was an early version of today’s nutrition label.
  • Overtime, companies began including health claims on their products along with this ingredient list. However, some of these were not factually based, which led to the 1973 decision that companies must include nutrition facts for any product that state health benefits. For example, a “low fat” marketed food must include nutrition facts to back this claim.
  • Finally, in 1990 the FDA created the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. This required all food companies to include a detailed and standardized nutrition facts panel on the products that they sell. While some minor changes have been made since, this is the nutrition label we know today.

Overall, the nutrition labels we have today help protect against foodborne illness, false claims, and protect those who have food allergens. By being openly transparent about what is in foods, consumers can better choose which items to purchase.

Are Nutrition Labels Regulated?

As you can tell from the history of food labeling, the need for nutrition labels has been evident and pushed by government entities. The nutrition labels used today are regulated and standardized, ensuring all necessary items are included. Depending on the food in question, differing agencies will regulate the labeling, for example:

  • Most food labels are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA.
  • Meat and poultry products are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA and Food Safety Inspection Service or FSIS.

The FDA, USDA, and FSIS all work together to standardize nutrition labels. This means that all companies are held to the same standard of labeling their food products.

How are Calories Calculated on a Nutrition Label?

Calorie counting can be a great way to monitor your food intake and is often used for those who are hoping to lose weight. While each individual will have a differing caloric need, understanding what calories even are can be beneficial. Understanding the calorie count found in foods is a bit confusing and follows the Atwater system.

To better understand the calorie count found on nutrition labels, we will break down how these numbers are found:

  • The calories referenced on nutrition labels are actually kilocalories or kcals. This is essentially a measurement of energy. One kcal is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
  • When it comes to food, the calories found in food items come from the three macronutrients fat, carbohydrates, and protein. (Learn more about macros in nutrition in that article!)
  • It became a requirement for companies to list the calories in their products in 1990. Some companies did this by using a tool called a bomb calorimeter.
  • Atwater introduced a new way of finding calories called the 4-9-4 system. This essentially calculates the number of calories in foods and then tests feces to see how many calories are expelled. Atwater found that proteins and carbs have about four calories per gram and fats have nine calories per gram.
  • While this method used by Atwater is commonly accepted today, it is still questionable about its overall accuracy. Some foods have proved to not fit this method accurately and the caloric count cannot be determined using this method. Due to this, the FDA has a 20% margin of error for many nutrients, including calories.

Overall, the number of calories listed on the food products you purchase will be fairly close to the correct number but can be a margin different than the true number. However, this is still a great way to monitor food intake.

Monitor Food Intake with Nutrition Labels

As you can tell, the main reasoning behind nutrition labels is to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing and eating. This helps lower the number of food related deaths due to foodborne illness, allergic reaction, and more. By being transparent with what is found in foods, consumers can better decide what is best for their body.