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Food labeling

Food labeling offers a great deal of information on most packaged foods.

Alternative Names

Nutrition labeling


Serving size:

Based on an average portion size. Similar food products have similar serving sizes to make comparison between products easier.

Amounts per serving:

The total calories and the calories from fat are listed. These numbers will help consumers make decisions about fat intake. The list of nutrients (total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate , dietary fiber , sugars , protein ) includes those most important to the health of today's consumer. The amount, in grams (g) or milligrams (mg), per serving of these nutrients is listed to their immediate right.

Vitamins and minerals:

Only two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (calcium and iron) are required on the food label. Food companies can voluntarily list other vitamins and minerals in the food. When vitamins or minerals are added to the food, or when a vitamin or mineral claim is made, those nutrients must be listed on the nutrition label.

Percent daily value:

The amounts of vitamins and minerals are listed as a Percent Daily Value on the nutrition label. The Percent Daily Value for vitamins and minerals gives a general idea of how much of a vitamin or mineral a serving contributes to the total daily requirement. For example, if the Percent Daily Value for vitamin C of all the foods you eat in a day adds up to 100%, your diet meets the recommendation for vitamin C.

Food Sources

The United States government requires food labels on most packaged foods. The label offers complete, useful, and accurate nutrition information. The government encourages food manufacturers to improve the quality of their products and help the consumer make healthier food choices. The consistent format helps you directly compare the nutritional content of various foods. Food labels have the title "Nutrition Facts."


The Daily Values section shows how a food fits into your overall daily diet. The value of the nutrient is given in percentages. The Percent Daily Value gives the food's nutritional content based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You can use this to quickly compare foods and see how the amount of a nutrient in a serving of food fits into a 2,000-calorie diet.

For example, a food that has 13 grams of fat with a Percent Daily Value of 20% means that 13 grams of fat is 20%, or one-fifth, of the total daily fat recommended for a person who eats 2,000 calories per day.

Near the bottom of the label you will see a list of six nutrients and the recommended daily intakes. The daily values are listed for 2,000-calorie and for 2,500-calorie diets. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

The amounts of the first four nutrients -- total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium -- are maximum amounts. That is why the list says "less than" before the number. The amounts of total carbohydrate and dietary fiber are minimum amounts. This is exactly the same on all food labels that carry it. You can use it as a reference.


A nutrient content claim is a word or phrase on a food package that makes a comment about the nutritional value of the food. The claim will mean the same for every product. The following are some approved nutrient claims.

Calorie terms:

  • Low-calorie
    • 40 calories or less per serving
  • Reduced-calorie
    • At least 25% fewer calories per serving when compared with a similar food
  • Light, Lite
    • One-third fewer calories or 50% less fat per serving; if more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more

Sugar terms:

  • Sugar-free
    • Less than 1/2 gram sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar
    • At least 25% less sugar per serving when compared with a similar food.

Fat terms:

  • Fat-free
    • Less than 1/2 gram fat per serving
  • 100% fat free
    • Meets requirements for fat free
  • Low-fat
    • 3 grams fat or less per serving
  • Reduced-fat
    • At least 25% less fat when compared with a similar food

Cholesterol terms:

  • Cholesterol-free
    • Less than 2 milligrams cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving.
  • Low-Cholesterol
    • 20 milligrams or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving

Sodium terms:

  • Sodium-free
    • Less than 5 milligrams sodium per serving
  • Salt-free
    • Meets requirements for sodium-free


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves and regulates health claim phrases. A health claim is a food label message that describes the relationship between a food or food component, such as fat, calcium, or fiber, and a disease or health-related condition.

The government has authorized health claims for these seven diet and health relationships that are backed by extensive scientific evidence:

1. Calcium and osteoporosis

2. Fat and cancer

3. Fiber-containing grain products, fruits, vegetables and cancer

4. Fiber-containing fruits, vegetables, and grain products and coronary heart disease

5. Fruits, vegetables and cancer

6. Saturated fat and cholesterol and coronary heart disease

7. Sodium and high blood pressure (hypertension )

An example of a valid health claim you may see on a high-fiber cereal product food label would be: "Many factors affect cancer risk; eating a diet low in fat and high in fiber may lower the risk of this disease."

For further information on specific health claims refer to the information on diet and health.


Food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by weight (from the most to the least). People with food sensitivities can obtain useful information from the ingredient list on the label.

The ingredient list will include, when appropriate:

  • Caseinate as a milk derivative in foods that claim to be nondairy (such as coffee whiteners)
  • FDA-approved color additives
  • Sources of protein hydrolysates

Most manufacturers offer a toll-free number to answer questions about specific food products and their ingredients.


Many foods do not have information on them. Some foods are exempt from food labeling. These include:

  • Airline foods
  • Bulk food that is not resold
  • Food service vendors (such as mall cookie vendors, sidewalk vendors, and vending machines)
  • Hospital cafeterias
  • Medical foods
  • Flavor extracts
  • Food colors
  • Food produced by small businesses
  • Other foods that contain no significant amounts of any nutrients
  • Plain coffee and tea
  • Ready-to-eat food prepared primarily on the site
  • Restaurant foods
  • Spices

Stores may voluntarily list nutrients for many raw foods. The 20 most commonly eaten raw fruits and vegetables and seafood will display nutrition information in the store. Nutrition labeling for single-ingredient raw products, such as ground beef and chicken breasts, is also voluntary.

Updated: 6/8/2012

Jeffrey Heit, MD, Internist with special emphasis on preventive health, fitness and nutrition, Philadelphia VA Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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