Reading Food Labels
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Reading labels can help you make informed food choices. Packaged foods and drinks—the types that come in cans, boxes, bottles, jars, and bags—have a lot of nutrition and food safety information on their labels or packaging. Look for these things on the food label.
You might see one of three types of product dates on some foods you buy:
- “Sell by” tells how long the manufacturer suggests that a store should 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 be stale or less tasty.
- “Best if used by” (or “best if used before”) tells how long the food has the best flavor or quality—it does not suggest a date by which the food should be purchased.
Product dates are not safety dates and are not required by federal regulations (except on infant formula). They are added voluntarily by manufacturers.
This tells you each ingredient in the food product by its common or usual name. Did you know that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight? That is, the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.
Nutrition Facts Label
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a Nutrition Facts label on most packaged foods and beverages. At the top of the Nutrition Facts label, you will find the total number of servings in the container and the food or drink’s serving size. The serving size on the label is based on the amount of food that people typically eat at one time and is not a recommendation of how much to eat.
The rest of the nutrition information on the label is usually based on one serving of the food or beverage but can be for the whole container (see Food Label A). However, if the container has more than one serving but could be consumed in one sitting—such as a pint of ice cream—the label will have two columns (see Food Label B). The first column lists the calories and nutrients in one serving. The second column lists the calories and nutrients in the entire container. If you eat a whole package of food that contains two servings, you will get twice as many calories, nutrients, sugar, and fat as are in one serving.
Percent Daily Value (DV) is a reference amount of a nutrient to consume or not to exceed each day. The percent Daily Value (%DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of the food contributes to a total daily diet. Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, so if you are eating fewer calories and eat a serving of this food, your %DV will be higher than what you see on the label. Some nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label do not have a %DV, so use the number of grams to compare and choose products.
Most Americans exceed the recommended limits for saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. Compare and choose foods to get less than 100% DV of these nutrients each day.
Many Americans also do not get the recommended amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. Eating enough foods that contain these nutrients can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure. Compare and choose foods to aim for 100% DV of these nutrients.
For More Information About Food Labels
This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.
Content reviewed: April 30, 2019