Nutrition Facts Labels

May 16, 2013

When you’re walking down the aisles of a supermarket, it’s not unusual to see fellow shoppers reading the information on the back of a food package, box or can.  They might want to know how many calories are in the food, or they might be watching their sodium intake.

They could be trying to limit sugars and eat more dietary fiber. Or they could be parents trying to make the most nutritious choices for their children.

All this information is available thanks to an important addition to food packaging that was introduced to the American public 20 years ago: the Nutrition Facts label. This familiar rectangular box provides, in a standard format, important information about the nutritional content for most packaged foods, including breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts and drinks.

“It was revolutionary,” says Jessica Leighton, Ph.D., senior nutrition science and policy advisor in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. “For the first time, people had consistent information they need right at the point of purchase for the majority of packaged food products.”

In the years since FDA issued the final rule for this labeling on Jan. 6, 1993, the Nutrition Facts label has influenced many companies to make their foods more healthful. Additionally, notes Claudine Kavanaugh, Ph.D.,M.P.H.,R.D., a scientist at the agency, “FDA was really a trailblazer in nutrition labeling. The Nutrition Facts label has been adapted by countries around the world that have chosen to mandate food.

Label Use Increasing

The Nutrition Facts label was mandated after passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Before it became standard practice, manufacturers provided nutritional information on a voluntary basis that wasn’t consistent from product to product, explains Felicia Billingslea, M.S., director of FDA’s food labeling and standards staff.

“The label is all about the attributes of the food,” says Billingslea. “It’s not to say that this is a good food or a bad food. It provides information that consumers can use and rely upon in developing healthful diets for themselves.”

FDA survey data shows that use of the Nutrition Facts label has been increasing. In comparing the Health and Diet Survey conducted in 2002 with the most recent one conducted in 2008, the percentage of consumers reporting that they often use the label rose from 44 to 54 percent.

This usage has influenced many companies to change their ingredients to make the foods more healthful and thus more appealing to many consumers.

FDA cites as an example the decrease in consumption of trans fat, which has been linked to heart disease, primarily because of a decrease in manufacturers’ use of partially hydrogenated oils. From the late 1990s to 2010, trans fat intake in adults decreased from 4.6 grams to 1.3 grams per day, with most of the reduction occurring after trans fat was added to the food label in 2003.

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When shopping for food, consumers can read food labels and choose foods that are lower in sodium.

The Nutrition Facts Label on food and beverage packages lists the “Percent Daily Value (%DV)” of sodium in one serving of a food, based on 2,400 mg per day.  The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet. Foods providing 5%DV or less of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium and foods providing 20%DV or more of sodium per serving are considered high. But remember, all of the nutrition information on the label is based upon one serving of the food and many packaged foods have more than one serving.

It is recommended that consumers not exceed 100% of the daily value for sodium and those advised to limit intake to 1,500 mg per day should aim for about 65% of the daily value.

Consumers can also be aware of the sources of sodium in their diet. In a report issued in February 2012, CDC identified these 10 foods as the greatest sources of sodium:

  • breads and rolls
  • luncheon meat, such as deli ham or turkey
  • pizza
  • poultry, fresh and processed—(Much of the raw chicken bought from a store has been injected with a sodium solution.)
  • soups
  • cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
  • cheese, natural and processed
  • pasta dishes
  • meat dishes, such as meat loaf with gravy
  • savory snack foods, such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn

And how do you know how much sodium is in the food served at your favorite restaurant? Fasano notes that many chain restaurants are putting the nutritional content of their foods—including calories, fats, sodium and sugars—on their websites, or it’s available by asking for it.

FDA has also created a number of online resources to help consumers reduce their sodium intake. They include:

  • A Sodium Reduction website provides links to resources on how to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet.
  • A Sodium Education website offers consumer advice on how to use the Nutrition Facts Label to reduce sodium intake.
  • The Spot the Block campaign challenges tweens from 9 to 13 to use the Nutrition Facts Label (the “block”) to make healthy food choices.

Healthy Heart: Food Tips

December 22, 2010

Making healthy food choices is one of many lifestyle changes that can help reduce your risk for getting heart disease—the No. 1 killer in the United States. The Nutrition Facts found on most foods and health claims allowed on some foods can help you choose wisely.

To help ward off heart disease, choose foods with

  • less fat
  • less sodium (salt)
  • less cholesterol
  • fewer calories
  • more fiber

“Making better food choices for your health doesn’t mean you will need to exclude favorite foods,”

says Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements.

“You can use one of the most valuable tools people have—the food label—to make dietary trade-offs. For example, if you eat a food that is high in saturated fat, you can make other choices during the day that are low in saturated fat to keep your total daily intake in balance by using the part of the food label called Nutrition Facts.”

People concerned about their blood pressure who want to limit how much salt (sodium) they eat may be faced with five different types of tomato soup on the shelf, says Schneeman. You can compare the sodium content of each product by looking at Nutrition Facts to choose the one with the lowest sodium content.

Some food products carry health claims—statements that the product may help reduce the risk of developing a certain disease or condition. FDA authorizes some health claims based on “significant scientific agreement,” which means that the claim is supported by strong, scientific evidence based on studies in people and that the claim is unlikely to be reversed by new studies. Only foods that meet the criteria for a claim are allowed to carry the claim on their labels.

Here are claims related to heart disease that you may see on some foods:

  • While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of this disease.
  • Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors.
  • Soluble fiber from foods such as [name of food], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Child Obesity

November 2, 2010

With childhood obesity on the rise, parents, schools—even whole communities—are getting behind the movement to help young people eat healthier. Remember, healthy eating at home and school begins at the grocery store. Look at Nutrition Facts label for information about calories and percentage of a day’s worth of nutrients in one serving and lists of ingredients that went into the product.

Ingredients in prepared foods are listed in descending order of predominance. If the cereal your kids like has some type of grain listed first, that’s a good sign. But if fructose, high fructose corn syrup, or sucrose—in other words, sugar—is listed first, you’d best leave that item on the store shelf because added sugars are taking the place of other, more nutritious ingredients.

And sugar isn’t always an additive. Some foods—fruits, for example—are naturally sweet without adding any sugar at all. If you check the Nutrition Facts label on canned or dried fruits that have no added sugar, you’ll still see sugars listed. That’s because the sugars in pineapple, raisins, prunes, and other fruits occur naturally.

Try to get 20 percent or more of protein, fiber, and some essential vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C and calcium) in a single serving; but limit your intake of saturated fats and sodium to 5 percent or less per serving of food. Strive for 0 trans fat, or trans fatty acids—this harmful fat raises your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers your good cholesterol (HDL).