Reading the Label


finger pointing at nutrition labelReading labels can help you make good food choices. Processed and packaged foods and drinks—you’ll find them in cans, boxes, bottles, jars, and bags—have a lot of nutrition and food safety information on their labels or packaging. Look for:

Product dates

You might see one of three types of product dates on some foods you buy:

  • "Sell by" tells how long the store can sell foods like meat, poultry, eggs, or milk products—buy it before this date
  • "Use by" tells how long the food will be at peak quality—if you buy or use it after that date, some foods might not be safe any longer
  • "Best if used by" (or "best if used before") tells how long the food has the best flavor or quality—it is not a purchase or safety date

Ingredients list

This tells you everything that a processed food contains. Did you know that the items are presented from largest to smallest ingredient? That is, there is more of the first ingredient listed on the label than any other ingredient. The last ingredient on the list is found in the smallest amount.

Nutrition Facts label

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a Nutrition Facts label on all processed food. You can find nutrition information for fresh vegetables and fruits. Or you can call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Information Center at 1-301-504-5414.

The Nutrition Facts label is all white with black letters. You can see a sample label below, along with a few key things to know about it. To learn more about the information on this label, go to FDA's Labeling and Nutrition. Note: The FDA recently proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label to reflect the latest scientific information linking diet and chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease. Proposed updates include a new design that highlights key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.

At the top, you will find the FDA definition of a serving of that food or drink and the number of servings in the container. The rest of the nutrition information on the label is for one serving, not for the whole package or bottle. If a can or package holds two servings and you eat the whole thing, you have eaten double all the numbers on the Nutrition Facts label—twice the calories, twice the fat, twice the protein, and so on. Nutrition Label with items in captions highlighted Daily Value (DV) is how much of each nutrient most people need each day. The %DV says what part (as a percent) of the total daily recommendation for a nutrient is in a serving. The Daily Value is based on eating 2,000 calories each day, so if you are eating fewer calories and eat a serving of this food, your %DV will be higher than you see on the label.

Here's a Tip

If a food has 5% of the Daily Value or less, it is low in that nutrient. If it has 20% or more, it is high in that nutrient. Low or high can be either good or bad—it depends on whether you need more of a nutrient (like fiber), or less (like fat).


What's On Your Plate? is based on the nutrition recommendations for older adults in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).