The Nutrition Facts Panel
Nutrients on the facts panel were chosen by their importance in relation to modern health issues. New listings appear as health concerns change. For example, the listing for trans fat is a relatively recent addition.
Placement on the label is an indication of importance, too. For instance, sodium is not listed with the other minerals and micronutrients, but up high, next to cholesterol, because many people need to monitor their sodium intake.
The labels are placed on every food package, either vertically or horizontally. Sometimes you have to search a bit, as folds in the packaging can hide it. Sometimes, too, the label is on a box, but not on individually packaged contents.
Most food served for immediate consumption, such as that sold in bakeries or delis, or served on airplanes or in hospitals, is not required to be labeled. But if a restaurant makes specific health and nutrient claims, then labels (typically on a separate sheet) must be provided upon request.
The top of the panel lists the serving information. The serving size is the quantity of product that the facts are based on. The facts are not based on the entire package. If you do not read the serving size, the rest of the information is useless.
Serving sizes are often shocking. For instance, a regular four-inch bagel may constitute over two servings, while a serving of cookies may be just one cookie. Do not be misled by a low calorie count. Check the serving size before you get excited.
Don’t forget to take the food’s preparation, if any, into consideration. Serving size may be before or after water or other ingredients are added. This information will also be printed clearly in the serving size area of the label.
Servings per Container
This little bit of information is useful if you tend to eat an entire package of food in one sitting. It will tell you how many servings are contained in the package. All it takes is some easy math to figure out just how many servings, and thus how many calories and grams of fat, were in that bag of chips you just wolfed down.
Percent Daily Value
Daily values, (also known as daily reference values, or DRVs) show you how much of the daily recommended nutrients are in the product. The figure is given as a percent of a designated amount of nutrients required for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. The recommendations are high and considered the most that would be healthful for adults.
The percentage listed on the label is based on a recommendation of total daily nutrients. These daily nutrient percentages are as follows:
Fat should constitute 30 percent of calories
Saturated fat should constitute 10 percent of calories
Carbohydrates should constitute 60 percent of calories
Protein should constitute 10 percent of calories
Fiber is based on 13 grams daily
If you are on a special diet, these percentages will not apply.
The term recommended daily allowance is being replaced by reference daily intake (RDI). Recommended daily allowance was prompted by investigations into diet and nutrition during World War II. Information gained in those studies was put to use in the armed forces, the civilian population, and in overseas relief efforts. The RDIs are the equivalent to the RDAs, and are used to determine the daily reference value percentages.
Calories measure energy. They are determined by burning a weighed portion of food, and measuring the heat it produces. Different nutrients contain different calories. Carbohydrates and protein each contain four calories per gram, fat has nine calories per gram, and alcohol has seven calories per gram.
In prepared foods with numerous ingredients and varying portion size, the calorie designation is useful and welcome information. However, be careful not to limit your label reading to the calorie section. Low calories often mean low nutrition. Knowledge of calories is only a small part of your healthy eating arsenal.
Fat, Carbohydrates, and Protein
A general listing for fat is given, followed by sublistings for saturated fat and trans fat, two forms of fatty acids that should be as close to zero as possible in healthy diets. There are also listings for cholesterol and sodium, two nutrients that should be limited as well.
Carbohydrates are listed as a total figure, as well as being separated into fiber and sugar. Fiber is a carbohydrate that, while indigestible, is still vital for good health. Fiber helps keep digestion flowing, and maintains normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. There is no daily value percentage for sugar, because it is not a recommended nutrient.
Protein is generally not a nutrient Americans need to be concerned with. We get plenty of it, so listing its daily value percentage is not required unless the product is marketed as a high-protein food, as in baby food or meal replacements. Often the grams per serving is all that is listed.
Vitamins and Minerals
The only required listings in this section are vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. These micronutrients are often deficient in the average diet. Products may choose to add more information on vitamins and minerals if the product contains significant quantities.
What are micro- and macronutrients?
Vitamins and minerals are considered micronutrients because only small quantities are necessary for good health. (Micro is from the Greek mikros, meaning “small.”) Carbohydrates, protein, fat, and water are considered macronutrients, as you require a much larger quantity. (Macro is from the Greek makros, meaning “long.”)
Recommended Daily Limits
On larger packages, just below the vitamins and minerals you may find a list of the daily limits of nutrients. These numbers, listed as quantities in grams, are based on a 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diet. This is a nice reminder of overall dietary needs.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, the daily limits are as follows:
Total fat should not exceed 65 grams
Total saturated fat should not exceed 20 grams
Total cholesterol should not exceed 300 milligrams
Total sodium should not exceed 2,400 milligrams