How to Read Food Labels

sample food label showing nutritional information

Eating a nutritious diet is key to good health. So it’s important to know what’s in the foods you buy at the store. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that food companies provide certain information in Nutrition Facts labels – those labels printed on food packages.

Here’s a guide to help you understand what the information on the label means:

Serving Size

The serving size tells you how many cups or pieces of food you are expected to eat, and how many servings are in each container of food. The number of calories and all the nutrient amounts are for each serving size, not necessarily for the whole package. That means if a can of soup has 2 servings and you eat the whole can, you’re getting twice as many calories and twice as many nutrients as it says on the label.

Calories

Eating too many calories a day is linked to overweight and obesity, which raises your risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Eating foods with fewer calories can help you control your weight. According to the FDA: 40 calories per serving is considered low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories or more is high.

sample food label showing nutritional information

Nutrients

Nutrients are substances in food that children’s bodies need to grow and all our bodies need to work right. Americans tend to get too much of some nutrients, and not enough of others. On the Nutrition Facts label, the first nutrients listed are the ones we should try to eat less of. They are: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The next nutrients listed are ones we should try to eat more of. They include: dietary fiber, vitamins, calcium, and iron.

Footnote

The information after the asterisk (*) on the label is called a footnote. The statement that “Percentage Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet” must be on all food labels. The rest of the information in the footnote may not be on some food packages if the size of the label is too small. But when it does appear, it’s always the same. It doesn’t change from label to label. That’s because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans based on how many calories they eat each day. It’s not specific to any one food product.

The numbers show the Daily Values for each nutrient depending on how many calories you eat each day. The numbers for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium refer to most of these nutrients you should eat each day. It’s OK to eat less than the recommended amount, but you should try not to eat any more than that amount.

On the other hand, the Daily Value for fiber shows you the least amount recommended for a balanced daily diet. You should try to eat at least this much fiber each day. The Daily Value for Total Carbohydrate is also the amount recommended for a balanced daily diet. This recommendation can vary depending on your daily intake of fat and protein. Most people should try to eat close to the recommended amount.

Eating Better

Lower your risk for cancer and other health problems by eating more vegetables, fruits, and fiber and less red meat, alcohol, sugar, fat, and calories. Check out our full recommendations.

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The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.