Nutrition Facts Labels

Once upon a time, the only reliable consumer information on a food label was the name of the food inside. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act changed that forever with a spiffy new set of consumer-friendly food labels that include:

  • A mini-nutrition guide that shows the food’s nutrient content and evaluates its place in a balanced diet
  • Accurate ingredient listings, with all ingredients listed in order of their weight in the food; for example, the most prominent ingredient in a loaf of bread would be flour
  • Clear identification of ingredients previously listed simply as colorings and sweeteners
  • Scientifically reliable information about the relationship between specific foods and specific chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer

The Nutrition Facts label is required by law for more than 90 percent of all processed, packaged foods, everything from canned soup to fresh pasteurized orange juice. Food sold in really small packages — a pack of gum, for example — can omit the nutrition label but must carry a telephone number or address so that an inquisitive consumer (you) can call or write for the information.

Just about the only processed foods exempted from the nutrition labeling regulations are those with no appreciable amounts of nutrients or those whose content varies from batch to batch:

  • Plain (unflavored) coffee and tea
  • Some spices and flavorings
  • Deli and bakery items prepared fresh in the store where they’re sold directly to the consumer, as well as food produced by small companies
  • Food sold in restaurants, unless it makes a nutrition content or health claim (How do you eat well when eating out?

Labels are voluntary for fresh raw meat, fish, or poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables, but many markets — perhaps under pressure from customers (Hint! Hint!) — put posters or brochures with generic nutrition information near the meat counter or produce bins.

Just the facts, ma’am The star of the Nutrition Facts label is the Nutrition Facts panel on the back (or side) of the package. This panel features three important elements: serving sizes, amounts of nutrients per serving, and Percent Daily Value. (See Figure)

Serving size

No need to stretch your brain trying to translate gram-servings or ounceservings into real servings. This label does it for you, listing the servings in comprehensible kitchen terms such as one cup or one waffle or two pieces or one teaspoon. It also tells you how many servings are in the package.

The serving size is exactly the same for all products in a category. In other words, the Nutrition Facts chart enables you to compare at a glance the nutrient content for two different brands of yogurt, cheddar cheese, string beans, soft drinks, and so on.

When checking the labels, you may think the suggested serving sizes seem small (especially with so-called low-fat items). Think of these serving sizes as useful guides.

Amount per serving

The Nutrition Facts chart tells you the amount (per serving) for several important factors:

  • Calories
  • Calories from fat
  • Total fat (in grams)
  • Saturated fat (in grams)
  • Trans fats (in grams)
  • Cholesterol (in milligrams)
  • Total carbohydrate (in grams)
  • Dietary fiber (in grams)
  • Sugars (in grams — total sugars, the ones occurring naturally in the food and the ones added during preparation)
  • Protein (in grams)

Percent Daily Value

The Percent Daily Value enables you to judge whether a specific food is high, medium, or low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

The Percent Daily Value for vitamins and minerals is based on a set of recommendations called the Reference Daily Intakes (RDI), which are similar (but not identical) to the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamins and minerals. RDIs are based on allowances set in 1973, so some RDIs now may not apply to all groups of people.

For example, the Daily Value for calcium is 1,000 milligrams, but many studies — and two National Institutes of Health Conferences — suggest that postmenopausal women who are not using hormone replacement therapy need to consume 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day to reduce their risk of osteoporosis.

The Percent Daily Values for fats, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, and potassium are based on the Daily Reference Values (DRV). DRVs are standards for nutrients, such as fat and fiber, known to raise or lower the risk of certain health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 says that no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat. That means a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet shouldn’t have any more than 600 calories from fat.

To translate fat calories to grams of fat (the units used in the DRVs), divide the number of calories from fat (600) by 9 (the number of calories in one gram of fat). The answer, 67, is slightly higher than the actual DRV. But it’s close enough.

And — dare I say it? — your daily paper. Boy, is nutrition ever a work-in-progress! Nutritionists use similar calculations to set the DRVs, such as:

  • Saturated fat — 10 percent of your calories/9 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates — 60 percent of your calories/4 calories per gram
  • Dietary fiber — 11.5 percent of your calories/0 calories per gram
  • Protein — 10 percent of your calories/4 calories per gram

Having set down this tidy list, I’m now compelled to tell you that the %DV (that’s short for Percent Daily Value), as shown on the Nutrition Facts labels, are behind the times. New recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 say:

  • Total fat calories should account for 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories.
  • No safe level exists for saturated fats or trans fats, thus no %DV is provided for either one. The total amount of saturated fat in the portion is the number of grams of sat fat plus the number of grams of trans fat. (Who else would tell you these things?) Calories from carbs should account for 45 to 65 percent of daily calories.
  • Women younger than 50 need to consume 25 grams of dietary fiber a day; men younger than 50, 38 grams. After age 51, it’s 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.
  • Calories from protein should account for 10 to 35 percent of total daily calories, an amount much higher than the current RDA for protein.

Will this change the numbers on the Nutrition Facts labels? The sensible answer is, sure it will . . . eventually. Are the current Nutrition Facts labels still useful? Absolutely.

Relying on labels

Ever since man (and woman) came out of the caves, people have been making health claims for certain foods. These folk remedies may be comforting, but the evidence to support them is mostly anecdotal: “I had a cold. My mom gave me chicken soup, and here I am, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Of course, it did take a week to get rid of the cold completely. . . .” On the other hand, health claims approved by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for inclusion on the new food labels are another matter entirely.

If you see a statement suggesting that a particular food or nutrient plays a role in reducing your risk of a specific medical condition, you can be absolutely 100 percent sure that a real relationship exists between the food and the medical condition.

You can also be sure that scientific evidence from well-designed studies supports the claim. In other words, USDA/FDA-approved health claims are medically sound and scientifically specific. They highlight the known relationships between:

  • Calcium and bone density: A label describing a food as “high in calcium” may truthfully say: “A diet high in calcium helps women maintain healthy bones and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.”
  • A diet high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and a higher risk of heart disease: A label describing a food as “low-fat, low cholesterol,” or “no fat, no cholesterol” may truthfully say: “This food follows the recommendations of the American Heart Association’s diet to lower the risk of heart disease.”
  • A high-fiber diet and a lower risk of some kinds of cancer: A label describing a food as “high-fiber” may truthfully say: “Foods high in dietary fiber may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.”
  • A high-fiber diet and a lower risk of heart attack: A label describing a food as “high-fiber” may truthfully say: “Foods high in dietary fiber may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
  • Sodium and hypertension (high blood pressure): A label describing a food as “low-sodium” may truthfully say: “A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.”
  • A fruit-and-vegetable-rich diet and a low risk of some kinds of cancer: Labels on fruits and vegetables may truthfully say: “A diet high in fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of some kinds of cancer.”
  • Folic acid (folate) and a lower risk of neural tube (spinal cord) birth defects such as spina bifida: Labels on folate-rich foods may truthfully say: “A diet rich in folates during pregnancy lowers the risk of neural tube defects in the fetus.”

Foods with more than 4 grams saturated fat and/or saturated fat plus trans fat per serving cannot have any health claims at all on their labels.

How high is high? How low is low?

Today, savvy consumers reach almost automatically for packages labeled “low fat” or “high fiber.” But it’s a dollars-to-doughnuts sure bet that hardly one shopper in a thousand knows what “low” and “high” actually mean. Because these are potent terms that promise real health benefits, the new labeling law has created strict, science-based definitions:

  • High means that one serving provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient. Other ways to say “high” are “rich in” or “excellent source,” as in “milk is an excellent source of calcium.”
  • Good source means one serving gives you 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.
  • Light (sometimes written lite) is used in connection with calories, fat, or sodium. It means the product has one-third fewer calories or 50 percent less fat or 50 percent less sodium than usually is found in a particular type of product.
  • Low means that the food contains an amount of a nutrient that enables you to eat several servings without going over the Daily Value for that nutrient.
  • Low-calorie means 40 calories or fewer per serving
  • Low-fat means 3 grams of fat or less
  • Low saturated fat means less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving and 1 gram (or less) saturated fat.
  • Low-cholesterol means 20 milligrams or less
  • Reduced saturated fat means that the amount of saturated fat plus trans fat has been reduced more than 25 percent from what’s normal for in the given food product
  • Free means “negligible” — not “none.”
  • Calorie-free means fewer than 5 calories per serving
  • Fat-free means less than 0.5 grams of fat
  • Trans fat–free means the food has less than 0.5 grams trans fat and 0.5 grams saturated fat per serving
  • Cholesterol-free means less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol or 2 grams or less saturated fat
  • Sodium-free or salt-free means less than 5 milligrams of sodium
  • Sugar-free means less than 0.5 grams of sugar

Notice something missing? Right, there’s no definition for “low sodium” per serving. On the other hand, a meal plan with less than 1,000 milligrams sodium per day is considered a low-sodium diet.

Listing what’s inside

The extra added attraction on the Nutrition Facts label is the complete ingredient listing, in which every single ingredient is listed in order of its weight in the product, heaviest first, lightest last. In addition, the label must spell out the true identity of some classes of ingredients known to cause allergic reactions:

  • Vegetable proteins (hydrolyzed corn protein rather than the old-fashioned hydrolyzed vegetable protein)
  • Milk products (nondairy products such as coffee whiteners may contain the milk protein caseinate, which comes from milk)
  • FD&C yellow No. 5, a full, formal chemical name instead of coloring

Naming the precise source of sweeteners (corn sugar monohydrate rather than just sugar monohydrate) is still voluntary, but as is true of information about raw meat, fish, and poultry, manufacturers and stores just may respond to consumer pressure. (Repeat advice: Hint! Hint!)