Reading and understanding the Nutrition Facts Label for health

A Nutrition Food Label can be a quick tool for making informed food choices that can contribute to a healthy diet.

As I stroll down the aisles of the grocery store, I tend to notice how many people pick up an item and flip to the back to begin reading the food label. A Nutrition Facts Label can provide a wealth of information and help us to recognize what we are putting in our body. As you begin the habit of reading labels, you will subconsciously start to make better choices.

The FDA provides requirements for foods under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and its amendments. Food labeling is required for most prepared foods, such as breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts and drinks. Nutrition labeling for raw produce (fruits and vegetables) and fish is voluntary. We refer to these products as “conventional” foods. Current law requires restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calorie content information for standard menu items on restaurant menus and menu boards, including drive-through menu boards. Other nutrient information, including total calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and total protein, would have to be made available in writing upon request. The Act also requires vending machine operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines to disclose calorie content for certain items. The Nutrition Facts Label is making changes that will be required by all manufacturers by Jan. 1, 2020; however, the majority of labels already adhere to these changes.

Nutrition Facts Labels include nutrients we should limit such as fat, saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar. They also list nutrients important to include in a healthy diet including dietary fiber, vitamin D and minerals such as calcium, potassium and iron. The old label required vitamin A and C to be included which are now being replaced by vitamin D and potassium. 

Tips for reading the Nutrition Facts Label:
  • Look at the serving size and the number of servings per package. All calories and nutrients listed are based on the serving size of the food. The new label also uses bold font on the calories and serving size to better catch the consumer’s eye.
  • The footnote located at the bottom of the label describes the percent Daily Value (DV). The DV tells consumers how much a nutrient in the serving size of that food is contributing to the recommended daily amount for that specific nutrient. Also, an ingredient list is below the footnote that provides the ingredients in the food. This list is presented in order, from most to least in that product.
    • It is important to direct your attention to the top nutrient section that includes fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars. These nutrients should be limited. Aim for eating products that have 0 percent trans fat and less than 5 percent saturated fats. Generally 5 percent or less is low and 20 percent or more is high.
    • It is also important to direct your attention to is the bottom nutrients section that includes dietary fiber, vitamin D, potassium, calcium and iron. Getting enough of these nutrients is important, can improve your health and may reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. The new label not only displays daily percentages of the nutrients included, but it also shows the actual amount of that specific nutrient present in the serving size.

An interactive food label with specific recommendations for each nutrient is available on the Michigan State University Extension website. The nutrition facts label provides an opportunity to make a healthier choice when shopping for a food or beverage.

MSU Extension offers nutrition education classes for people of all ages including specific programs for youth, adults, parents, and seniors.

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