What Do the Numbers and Characters on American Food Labels Mean?

What Do the Numbers and Characters on American Food Labels Mean?

Government regulations require packaged foods and drinks available for sale in the U.S. to have food labels on them. These labels list the nutrition facts of the product, and can help you purchase healthier food.

However, food labeling is complex. When you are in the U.S., you may find these labels hard to decipher. This article will help you break down the label-reading process into five simple steps, and help you shop smartly.

1. Check the serving size first

All of the information on the label is based on the serving size. Most products will have more than one serving in them. If you consume more than the serving size, you’ll have to recalculate the other figures on the label.

Although serving size is the amount that people generally consume of that product at once, it is not a recommendation for the amount you should consume. Think of it as a standard number that makes it easy for you to compare products.

2. Purchase foods as per your calorie needs

Calories are the measure of how much energy you get from the serving size of the food.  Overconsumption of calories can lead to health issues.

You can download free applications like MyFitnessPal that can help you set calorie goals based on whether you want to maintain, reduce, or increase your body weight. Alternatively, you can visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan to determine your calorie goals, so that you can purchase foods that fit your daily calorie needs.

3. Check the nutrient content of the food

Just below calories, you’ll find a section labeled as ‘nutrients.’

Here’s a list of nutrients you should watch out for:


Avoid added sugars. These are sugars that are added during the processing of foods. They’re distinct from the naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. Keep these common names used for sugar in mind: agave nectar, dextrose, maltose, and glucose.

For most people, natural sugar does not lead to negative health effects. However, added sugar provides you with no nutrients, except pure carbohydrates. Heavy sugar intake fills you with empty calories, and disrupts your body’s healthy blood sugar level.


Your sodium intake each day should not exceed 1,500 milligrams, unless directed otherwise by your doctor. Consuming too much sodium can cause cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure.

Look for low-sodium foods. An unsalted product has no added sodium, but check if sodium occurs in the food naturally. “Sodium-free” foods have less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.

“Low-sodium” foods have less than 140 mg per serving.

Cholesterol and fat:

Keep your cholesterol intake low. Look for cholesterol-free foods. These products can only have 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 g of saturated fat per standard serving size.

Purchase foods that have 0 trans-fat. Eating trans-fat can increase the bad cholesterol in your blood, which can cause heart disease. To avoid excess trans-fat, purchase foods that are made with oils extracted from vegetables, seeds, and nuts.

You can also look for foods that are marketed as trans-fat-free, fat-free, or saturated fat-free. These products contain less than 0.5 g of trans fatty acids, and less than 0.5 g of saturated fat per standard serving size.

The nutrients you should consume more are dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.

Ensure that your food has at least 5 g of fiber per serving, or one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates. Consuming more fiber will make you feel full, improve your bowel movements, and lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

4. Check the Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The Daily Values are the recommended amounts of nutrients you consume each day.

The %DV, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, reflects how much the nutrients in a single serving of the food will contribute to your daily diet. For example, if the label shows 20% for sodium, it means that the serving provides 20% of the sodium you need each day.

The %DV will also help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. As per the FDA, if the %DV value of the nutrient is below 5% per serving, the food is considered low on that nutrient. 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high.

Use %DV to make a choice between two similar food products. Make sure that the serving size is the same, and pick the product that provides you a higher %DV for your desired nutrients.

5. Always read the ingredients list

Below your food label should be a list of all the ingredients by weight. This will help you locate the main ingredients of your food.

You will also get a sense of what exactly the food item is made of. You should choose food items that have the least amount of chemicals.

In certain products, below the ingredients list, in capital, bold letters, there will be allergen information. However, all products may not list this. So, if you’re allergic to certain ingredients like soy, gluten, or nuts, read the ingredients list to ensure that the product is safe for you to consume.

Food labeling can be done in different formats. As per the order of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), from January 1, 2020, all labels should be in the dual-column format. Dual-column labels will tell you the number of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package” basis.

As long as you have the basic information outlined in this article with you, you will easily be able to decipher any food label in your grocery store.

The best part about understanding your food labels is that you can maintain a healthy diet without completely abandoning your favorite foods. You can balance the high sugar or fat intake from your favorite junk food with items that have more desirable nutrients.

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