Dietary Guidelines: Using the Food Label

The Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list on packages of foods and beverages are useful tools that can help consumers learn about what is in foods and beverages (Figure A4-1). Food labeling can help consumers evaluate and compare the nutritional content and/or the ingredients in foods and beverages. This can help them identify the calorie and nutrient content of a food and select foods with higher or lower amounts of certain nutrients that fit within an overall healthy eating pattern.

Nutrition Facts Label Annotated to show separate sections of label

figure a4-1. the nutrition facts label and ingredients list of a granola Bar


Granola Bar (Brown Rice Syrup, Granola [rolled oats, honey, canola oil], Dry Roasted Peanuts, Soy Crisps [soy protein isolate, rice flour, malt extract, calcium carbonate], Crisp Brown Rice [organic brown rice flour, evaporated cane juice, molasses, rice bran extract, sea salt], Glycerine, Peanut Butter [ground dry roasted peanuts], Inulin, Whey Protein Isolate, Gold Flax Seeds, Quinoa Flakes, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Natural Flavors, Water, Soy Lecithin [an emulsifier]), Dark Compound Coating (evaporated cane juice, palm kernel oil, cocoa [processed with alkali], palm oil, soy lecithin [an emulsifier]).

Nutrition Facts Label

The Nutrition Facts label provides the number of calories that are in a serving of food and the number of servings that are in a package (e.g., can or box). This information can be used to determine how many calories are being consumed from one serving, or from that portion eaten if it is more or less than one serving. For example, if a package contains two servings and the entire package is consumed, then twice the calories and nutrients listed in the Nutrition Facts label are being consumed.

The Nutrition Facts label also provides information on the amount (i.e., grams [g] or milligrams [mg]) per serving of dietary fiber, as well as the amount of certain nutrients that should be limited in the diet, including saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It is mandatory for this information to be provided on the Nutrition Facts label.

The label also provides the percent Daily Value for these nutrients (except trans fat and sugars) and several shortfall nutrients, including dietary fiber and calcium. The Daily Value is based on a reference intake level that should be consumed or should not be exceeded. The percent Daily Value can be used to determine whether a serving of a food contributes a lot or a little of a particular nutrient and provides information on how a serving of the food fits in the context of a total daily diet. The higher the percent Daily Value, the more that serving of food contributes to an individual’s intake of a specific nutrient. Foods that are “low” in a nutrient generally contain less than 5 percent of the Daily Value. Foods that are a “good” source of a nutrient generally contain 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value per serving. Foods that are “high” or “rich” in or are an “excellent” source of a nutrient generally contain 20 percent or more of the Daily Value per serving.

The footnote at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label provides the Daily Values for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, and fiber, based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. The Daily Value for these nutrients, other than cholesterol and sodium, would be higher or lower depending on an individual’s calorie needs (e.g., the lower one’s calorie needs, the lower the Daily Value for the particular nutrients).

Solid fats are not specified on the Nutrition Facts label. However, consumers can look at the saturated fat and trans fat content of a food in the Nutrition Facts label for a rough estimate of the amount of solid fat in it. Foods that are low in saturated fats or contain zero grams of trans fats contain low amounts of solid fats. The ingredients list (see below) also can be used to help identify foods that contain solid fats.

The Nutrition Facts label provides the total amount of sugars (natural and added), but does not list added sugars separately. Natural sugars are found mainly in fruit and milk products. Therefore, for all foods that do not contain any fruit or milk ingredients, the total amount of sugars listed in the Nutrition Facts label approximates the amount of added sugars. For foods that contain fruit or milk products, added sugars can be identified in the ingredients list.

ingredients list

The ingredients list can be used to find out whether a food or beverage contains synthetic trans fats, solid fats, added sugars, whole grains, and refined grains. Ingredients are listed in the order of weight; that is, the ingredient with the greatest contribution to the product weight is listed first and the ingredient contributing the least is listed last (Figure A4-1). The ingredients list is usually located near the name of the food’s manufacturer and often under the Nutrition Facts label.

trans fats

Although the amount by weight of trans fat is provided on the Nutrition Facts label, the ingredients list can help identify the type of trans fat in the food (i.e., synthetic vs. natural). Synthetic trans fats can be produced during the hydrogenation of oils (see Chapter 3). If the ingredients list includes partially hydrogenated oils, then the product is likely to contain trans fatty acids.

oils, solid fats, and added sugars

To determine whether foods contain oils or solid fats, consumers can read the ingredients list to make sure that fats in the foods are oils containing primarily unsaturated fatty acids and that solid fats are not one of the first few ingredients. Examples of unsaturated oils that may be listed as an ingredient are provided in Chapter 3, Figure 3-3. Examples of solid fats that may be used in the ingredients list are provided in Table A4-1. The ingredients list can be used in the same way to identify foods that are high in added sugars. Added sugars that are often used as ingredients are provided in Table A4-2.

Table A4-1. Examples of Solid Fats (a) That Can Be Listed As An Ingredient

Beef fat (tallow, suet)


Chicken fat

Coconut oil


Hydrogenated oils

Palm kernel oil

Palm oil

Partially hydrogenated oils

Pork fat (lard)


Stick margarine

a. The oils listed here are high in saturated fat, and partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fat; therefore, for nutritional purposes, these oils are considered solid fats.

whole grains

The ingredients list also can be used to find out if a food contains whole grains. Whole grains are consumed either as a single food (e.g., wild rice or popcorn) or as a food that contains whole grains as an ingredient (e.g., cereals, breads, and crackers). If whole grains are the primary ingredient listed, the food could be considered a 100% whole-grain food. The relative amount of grain in the food is important and can be inferred by placement of the grain in the ingredients list. The whole grain should be the first or second ingredient, after water. For foods with multiple whole-grain ingredients, they should appear near the beginning of the ingredients list. Examples of whole grains that can be listed as an ingredient are provided in Table A4-3.


Table A4-2. Examples of Added Sugars That Can Be Listed as an Ingredient

Anhydrous dextrose


Brown sugar

Malt syrup

Confectioner’s powdered sugar


Corn syrup

Maple syrup

Corn syrup solids



Nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)


Pancake syrup

High-fructose corn syrup

Raw sugar



Invert sugar


White granulated sugar

Other added sugars may be listed as an ingredient but are not recognized by FDA as an ingredient name. These include cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice, and fruit nectar.

Some foods are labeled “made with whole grains.” Although some foods are labeled as being a “good source of whole grains,” no definition for a “good” or “excellent” source of whole grains has been established. Foods in which a substantial proportion of the grain ingredients are whole grains can help consumers increase their whole-grain intake (see Chapter 4). Many, but not all whole-grain products are good or excellent sources of dietary fiber. Use the Nutrition Facts label on whole-grain products to choose foods that are a good or excellent source of dietary fiber. For example, Figure A4-1 shows that the granola bar is a good source (12% of the Daily Value) of dietary fiber.

Table A4-3. Examples of Whole Grains That Can Be Listed As An Ingredient

Brown rice

Whole-grain sorghum


Whole-grain triticale

Bulgur (cracked wheat)

Whole-grain barley


Whole-grain corn


Whole oats/oatmeal


Whole rye


Whole wheat

Rolled oats

Wild rice

refined grains

When refined grains (e.g., white bread and white rice) are consumed, they should be enriched. Often the package will state that it is “enriched.” The ingredients list also can be used to determine whether a refined grain has been enriched with iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and fortified with folic acid.