Using the Food Label

Sally Schakel

Nearly every packaged food must be labeled with information about its nutrient and ingredient content. The food label can become your source of information for choosing foods that fit your health and lifestyle needs.

Nutrition facts

The % Daily Value on a food label shows how much a nutrient contributes to a typical 2,000-calorie daily diet. The % Daily Value tells you if the amount of a nutrient in the food is high or low. In one serving look for a low % Daily Value in unhealthy nutrients and a high % Daily Value in healthful nutrients. All labels must contain information about the food’s content of calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. If a food is fortified with other nutrients, these must appear on the label as well.


Ingredients are listed by weight from most to least. On our cookie label, for example, enriched flour is the first ingredient, and therefore more flour went into making these cookies than any other ingredient. The amount of sugar (the second ingredient on the list) will be less than the amount of flour, but more than partially hydrogenated soybean oil (the third ingredient). The ingredient list gives you an idea of the proportion of ingredients in the food, and helps you identify any you may want to avoid due to allergies or health or religious restrictions. There are guidelines (albeit voluntary) for the food industry to include any common allergen in the ingredient list, even those found in trace amounts. These guidelines apply to eight foods responsible for most allergic reactions: crustaceans, milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat. Food additives are included in the main ingredient list and are used by food manufacturers to improve or maintain product consistency, nutritional value or shelf life, or to provide leavening, flavor or color. Food additives are included in the ingredient list and are regulated and monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure their safety. The following table lists some common food additives:

Food Additive Commonly Found In
Antimicrobials (prevent spoilage): calcium propionate, sodium nitrite, sulfites Baked goods, bread, frankfurters, ham, lunch meats
Antioxidants (prevent rancidity and browning): ascorbic acid(vitamin C), BHA, BHT, citric acid, EDTA, lecithin, sulfites, tocopherol(vitamin E) Baking mixes, candy, cereal, dehydrated potatoes, driedfruit, snack chips
Bulking Agent: polydextrose Cake, candy, frozen desserts
Colorants (natural): annatto, beta carotene, caramel, chlorophyll Colorants (synthetic): FD&C blue, green, red, yellow Baked goods,candy, cheese, fruit gelatin, ice cream, margarine, soft drinks
Emulsifiers (keep oil and water blended): lecithin, mono- anddiglycerides, polysorbate Baked goods, cake mixes, margarine,mayonnaise, peanut butter, mayonnaise
Flavoring or Flavor Enhancers: extracts, hydrolyzed vegetableprotein, monosodium glutamate Frankfurters, sauces, soups, stews
Humectants (retain moisture): glycerine, sorbitol Baked goods,candy, coconut, marshmallows
Leavening Agents (help food rise): sodium bicarbonate, yeast Baked goods
Sweeteners (non-nutritive): acesulfame-K, aspartame, saccharin,sucrolose Sweeteners (nutritive): corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup,dextrose, fructose, mannitol Baked goods, candy, canned fruit, cocoamixes, fruit gelatin, frozen desserts, pie fillings, pudding, soft drinks, soupmixes, yogurt
Thickeners, stabilizers, texturizers (improve texture): carrageenan,casein, gelatin, gum, maltodextrin, modified starch, pectin, whey Cheesefoods, chocolate products, fruit gelatin, ice cream, jam, jelly, pudding,salad dressing

If you have adverse reactions to certain foods, you need to read carefully the food label for ingredients that may cause the reaction. For any of these food intolerances, it is important to know ingredients that are derived from these foods:

  • Milk-derived ingredients: casein, caseinate, lactoalbumin, lactate, whey
  • Egg-derived ingredients: albumin, globulin
  • Corn-derived ingredients: corn solids, cornstarch, corn syrup, vegetable starch, dextrose, glucose, corn oil, corn sugar, modified food starch
  • Legume-derived ingredients: acacia gum, arabic gum, carob, karaya gum, locust bean gum, tragacanth
  • Soy-derived ingredients: soy concentrate, soy protein, soya flour, TVP, vegetable protein concentrate
  • Gluten/gliadin ingredients: wheat, rye, oats, barley, flour, modified food starch, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, malt, distilled vinegar
  • Sulfites and the coloring agent FD&C Yellow No.5 must be reported on the food label. If you are sensitive to sulfites, avoid any ingredients with sulfite, sulfur or bisulfite in the name.

Nutrient content claim

A food label may include a nutrient content claim or a health claim. The nutrient content claim provides a description for the food, such as “low fat” or “reduced sodium.” Nutrient content claims have very specific definitions and are based on one serving of the food:

Content Claim
What It Means
Free Contains “no amount of” or a “trivial amount.” Other terms: “without,” “no” and “zero.”
Low Contains amounts that don’t exceed the following per serving: “low-fat”=3g or less; “low saturated-fat”=1 g or less; “low-sodium”=140 mg or less; “very low sodium”=35mg or less; “low-cholesterol”=20 mg or less; “low-calorie”=40 calories or less. Other terms: “little,” “few,” “low source of” and “contains a small amount of.”
High Contains 20% or more of the Daily Value of the nutrient.
Good Source Contains 10 to 19% of the Daily Value of the nutrient.
Reduced Contains at least 25% less of a nutrient than the regular product. Other terms: “less” and “fewer.”
Light Contains 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat of the regular product. Or a low-calorie, low-fat food that contains half the sodium of the regular product.
More Contains at least 10% of the Daily Value more than the regular food. Other terms: “fortified,” “enriched” and “added.”
Healthy A food low in fat and saturated fat with limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. It must contain at least 10% of the Daily Value of one or more of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber.
Lean and Extra Lean For meat, poultry, seafood or game. Lean contains less than 10g fat, 4.5g saturated fat, and 95mg cholesterol per serving and per 100g. Extra Lean contains less than 5g fat, 2g saturated fat and 95mg cholesterol per serving and per 100g.

Health claims

To date, the FDA has approved the health claims for the following diet and disease relationships, based on scientific evidence:

  • Calcium and reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • Low fat and reduced risk of cancer
  • Low saturated fat and low cholesterol and reduced risk of heart disease
  • Fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables and reduced risk of cancer
  • Fruits, vegetables and grain products that contain soluble fiber and reduced risk of heart disease
  • Low sodium and reduced risk of hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Folate and reduced risk of spinal cord birth defects
  • Dietary sugar alcohols and reduced risk of dental caries (cavities)
  • Soluble fiber from whole oats or psyllium seed husk and reduced risk of heart disease
  • Soy protein and reduced risk of heart disease
  • Plant sterols and stanols and reduced risk of heart disease

Other label language

Some food labels carry additional descriptions to tell you even more about what’s inside the package.

  • Fresh: foods that are raw, have never been frozen or reheated, and contain no preservatives may be labeled as fresh.
  • Kosher: foods that are processed according to Jewish dietary laws may contain a kosher symbol, usually a letter “U” inside the letter “O.” Accompanying the symbol will be one of the following terms: “meat or fleshig” indicates the food contains meat or its derivatives; “dairy or D” indicates the food contains dairy products or its derivatives; or “parve/pareve” means the food contains no meat, dairy or derivatives of these. See the Orthadox Union’s web site for more info on this subject.
  • Organic: national standards for organic foods begin in 2002. Since then, foods that are produced in accordance with USDA National Organic Program regulations can be labeled as organic. Foods containing ingredients produced with pesticides, antibiotics, irradiation or genetic engineering cannot carry the organic label.
  • Trans fat or trans fatty acids: these ingredient fats are made through the process of hydrogenation that solidifies liquid oils. They typically are found in margarines, shortenings, cookies, crackers and snack foods, and appear in the ingredient list as “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil.” Because they may increase the risk of heart disease, the amount of trans fat in a product soon may be required on the Nutrition Facts panel.
  • Vegan: these foods contain no animal products: meat, dairy, eggs or their derivatives.
Food Label

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