Understanding food labels

Nutrition facts

Let the food label be your guide to making healthy food choices. Almost all foods will have a food label. Many raw foods like fruits, vegetables or meats have nutrition information posted near them in the store. Some foods will not have food labels. These include:

  • Foods processed by small businesses and restaurants
  • Food produced on site, such as in a bakery
  • Vending machine foods
  • Coffee or spices
  • Packages that are too small to display the information

Quick tips

  • Servings are listed in common measurements (for example, three cookies or 1/2 cup).
  • Serving sizes are the same for similar products. This makes comparison between brands easy.
  • "Percent daily value" shows how foods fit into the overall daily diet based on 2000 calories. For example, the 20% next to total fat (in the label above) means that this product gives you 20% of the total fat you are allowed in a day. It does not mean that this product is 20% fat.
  • Include 25 to 35 grams of fiber in your diet each day.

Fat intake

  • Try to select foods that have less than 30% of their calories from fat.
  • If you wish to limit your fat to 20% of your daily calories, eat no more than 45 grams of fat per day or 12 grams per meal.
  • If you wish to limit your fat to 30% of your daily calories, eat no more than 65 grams of fat per day or 18 grams per meal.
  • Any remaining allowance may be included as snacks.

Sodium intake

  • If you follow a plan of 2000 mg sodium per day, limit each meal to 500 mg.
  • If you follow a plan of 3000 mg sodium per day, limit each meal to 800 mg.
  • Any remaining allowance may be included as snacks.

What is a gram?

You'll notice the letter "g," which stands for "gram," behind many of the numbers on the nutrition label. A gram is a unit of measurement for food nutrients. It's a way to tell how much fat, cholesterol, or other nutrients are in the foods you eat. When you compare that number to the recommended amount, you can see if you are working toward meeting your daily needs or if you're about to go over them.

An example

The sample label on the other side tells you that if you eat 2000 calories a day, you should have less than 65 grams of fat (remember that your dietitian can help you adjust these numbers if you eat fewer or more than 2000 calories). Now look to see how much fat this product contains_13 grams. If you like math, you can stand in the store or the kitchen and calculate exactly how this fits into your daily plan. But if there are other things you'd rather be doing, the new label will make it easy for you through the column labeled "% Daily Value."

Using "% Daily Value"

You've just seen that the sample product has 13 grams of total fat and your daily allowance (based on 2000 calories) is 65 grams. Now follow across the same column to the "% Daily Value," which says "20%." This means the product provides 20% of your daily allowance of total fat. Now look at saturated fats5 grams. When you look in the "% Daily Value" column you see that the product gives you one-fourth (25%) of your saturated fat allowance. And what about carbohydrates? This product has 31 grams, only 10% of what you need.

Looking at grams and % Daily Value can help you balance your food budget. The product here would give you a fair amount of fat but only 10% of needed carbohydrates. To balance your food budget, for the rest of the day you'll want to select foods high in carbohydrates and lower in fats. Remember that it's your average intake over an entire day, not in a single food or single meal, that's important. If you know the right information about what you eat, you can keep yourselfand your grams and caloriesin check.

Definitions of terms

Reduced, Less, or Fewer: A product containing 25% less of a nutrient (e.g., fat) or 25% less calories than the original product

Low fat:* 3 grams of fat or less per serving

Low cholesterol:* 20 mg of cholesterol or less per serving

Low calorie:* 40 calories or less per serving

Low sodium:* 140 mg sodium or less per serving

Very low sodium: 35 mg sodium or less per serving

Calorie free:** Less than 5 calories per serving

Sugar free:** Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving

Fat free:** Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving

Light or lite: A product with one-third less calories than the original; or, a product with half the fat of the regular product; or, a product that describes properties like texture or color as long as the label explains the intent, such as light brown sugar or light and fluffy

*Little, few, or low source of may be used in place of low.

**Without, no, or zero may be used in place of free.

For more information, please call your health care provider or cardiopulmonary rehabilitation department.