Reading Nutrition Facts Labels
Dr. Michael Garko
Nationally Syndicated Host & Producer of Let’s Talk Nutrition
The United States Government and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have devoted an extraordinary amount of time, money and effort to create and promote the Nutrition Facts Label appearing on food products. Generally speaking, consumers believe the Nutrition Facts Label is useful and would like to know how to use the label in a more effective and easy manner (Federal Food and Drug Administration, 2015).
Back in 1990, after the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed in congress, approximately 65% of consumers reported that they frequently read labels to determine if the foods they purchase contain anything they are trying to avoid eating. However, according to NPD, a global market research firm, about 48% read Nutrition Facts labels (Hennessy, 2014). Further, a University of Minnesota study revealed that consumers do not read Nutrition Facts labels than they actually do (Melnick, 2011).
Ironically, the point is that while they may believe it to be important and while there is useful information found on it to guide them in their day-to-day diet, consumers’ interest in reading Nutrition Facts labels is on the wane (see Institute of Food Technologists, 2014).
There are at least three key pieces of information found on the label that can help consumers interpret and use Nutrition Facts labels more effectively and easily: 1. Serving size, 2. calories (and calories from fat) and 3.nutrients (what to limit and what to get enough of in terms of % Daily Value (Food and Drug Administration, 2015).
The July, 2016 issue of Health and Wellness Monthly is intended to help consumers read nutrition facts labels.
Perhaps, a good place for consumers to start reading is the Serving Size information. Serving sizes on labels are standardized and reported in units that consumers can understand such as cups or pieces accompanied by the metric amount (e.g., number of grams) associated with a serving size and how many servings per container (e.g., 2, 4, 6, 8 etc.)
The serving size information is important because it affects the number of calories and all of the nutrients found listed on the top portion of the label. Thus, consumers need understand and to pay careful attention to serving size because they can end up consuming far more calories than they realize. For example, the label might indicate that a serving size = 1 cup (240 mL) with 8 servings per container with 110 Calories. If a consumer would misinterpret the information and believe the entire package contains 110 Calories when it really contains 880 Calories, then they would be consuming far more Calories than they might otherwise would want to consume.
Calories is the second piece of information on the Nutrition Facts Label that consumers need to check. The calories section on the label is especially important for those are attempting to lose, gain or otherwise manage their weight or manage their diet in terms of how much of certain kind of foods they might want to eat on a daily basis.
Calories on the Nutrition Facts label is often reported as the Total Calories per serving, which is portioned into Calories from Fat per serving, although the Nutrition Facts Label example provided for the Discussion only gives Calories From Fat (i.e., 110 Calories From Fat).
Providing the Calorie information in terms of the Amount Per Serving gives consumers a measure or sense of how much energy they will consume with a certain number of servings they may choose to eat.
The FDA provides a General Guide to Calories based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The guide provides the consumer with a general sense of what would constitute a low, moderate or high number of Calories per serving:
40 Calories – Low
100 Calories – Moderate
400 or more Calories – High
It is important for consumers to know that the “calorie” referred to on Nutrition Facts labels is actually kilocalories or Calories with a capital “C.” One kilocalorie equals one Calorie (upper case), which is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water one degree Celsius. While kilocalories is what is reported on labels and is intended to refer to Calories with a capital C, many people mistakenly use the term “calories” with a small “c” to refer to kilocalories/Calories.
Information about several different macro- and micro-nutrients is reported on the Nutrition Facts Label. All nutrients are reported in terms of the % of Daily Value (%DV) consumers should consume of these nutrients based on a 2,000 Calorie diet. The % Daily Values are based on the Daily Value recommendation for key nutrients to be consumed and are intended to give consumers a nutritional frame of reference as to what they should eat (e.g., carbohydrates such as dietary fiber, protein and certain vitamins and minerals) and what nutrients they might want to limit (e.g., saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium) because they can contribute to overweight, obesity and certain diet-related diseases such as coronary heart disease.
One section of the Nutrition Facts Label shows Total Fat broken down into Saturated Fat and Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium in a certain number of metric units such as grams or milligrams and as % of Daily Value. For example, Total Fat could be reported as 3.5 g, Saturated Fat as 1 g and Trans Fat as 0 g, reflecting 5%, 5% and 0% as the recommended % of Daily Value (%DV) consumers should eat of these foods based on either a 2,000 Calorie.
Another section of the label reports Total Carbohydrate (e.g., 14 g), which is broken down into Dietary Fiber (e.g., 1 gram) and Sugars (e.g.,12 g) and Protein (e.g. 7 g). Just as with the fat information, Total Carbohydrate and Protein are reported as %DV.
Usually at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label the recommended daily values for Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber and Protein are given in g and mg. This section is important because it helps to make better sense of the %DV concept. The consumer should as, for example, 5% of what. The “what” is the total recommend amount (in g or mg) a person should consumption of the nutrients daily.
A special recommendation is given to consume “Less than” the given amount (in g or mg) for Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium. For example, the recommended Daily Value of Total Fat consumption might be 65 grams. There would be an indication to eat “Less than” that amount and certainly not to go over it. So, the %DV given for Total Fat (e.g., 5%) means that one serving of the product is 5% of the 65 grams a person should consume on a daily based on a 2000 Calorie diet. The same concept would apply to all the other nutrients and their %DV.
Finally, at the very bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label Calories from fat (9 grams) and from protein (4 grams) is given. This helps remind the consumer that fat is high in Calories and, thus, should be consumed in moderation.
Beyond the Nutrition Facts panel provided on the overall food label, other information is often given such as ingredients and special food certifications (e.g., organic, gluten free, Kosher, vegan and non-GMO). Certain warnings and cautions such as “Refrigerate after opening” and “Not for use as infant formula” may be given.
The Nutrition Facts Label is intended to help consumers make choices about what foods they may or may not want to eat so as to promote their health. The FDA is in the process of updating the label. Giving consumers the information is one thing, persuading them to use it is another matter. That people are not reading the label is evidence that the effort to promote the use of the use of the Nutrition Facts Label has worked and consumers do not need to keep reading the same label for the same foods they eat on a regular basis. This view seems to be an optimistic interpretation of the decline in reading of the Nutrition Fact Label and a little more than the glass being half full. Just because you print it does not mean that people will read it.
Federal Food and Drug Administration (2016). Commonly asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.nutrition.gov/whats-food/commonly-asked-questions-faqs.
Federal Food and Drug Administration (2015). How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm.
Hennessy, M. (2014). How much do consumers use (and understand) nutrition labels? http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Regulation/How-much-do-consumers-use-and-understand-nutrition-labels
Instituted of Food Technologists (2014). U.S. consumers’ interest in reading Nutrition Facts labels wanes. http://www.ift.org/Food-Technology/Daily-News/2014/March/03/US-consumers-interest-in-reading-Nutrition-Facts-labels-wanes.aspx
Melnick M. (2011). Study: Why people don’t read nutrition labels. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/24/study-why-people-dont-read-nutrition-labels/.
Suggested Citation: Garko, M. (2016, July). Reading nutrition facts labels. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.