Food labels can be found on almost all packaged foods, yet they seem to remain a strange unsolved mysterys. In 1930, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was put into place which established three standards for foods.

  1. Standards of identity (definition of the food)
  2. Standards of quality
  3. Standards regulating the fill of container

This basically meant that if someone wanted to call something “peanut butter” it had to meet certain standards in order to be called that!

For example, click this link for the standard of identity for peanut butter… it’s an entire page!

As the production of packaged foods rose, consumer interest rose as well. People wanted to know what was in these packaged foods. As a result, in 1972, companies could voluntarily include nutrition labels on their products (unless a food made a nutrition claim, then it was required to have a label– which I will get into). It wasn’t until 1990 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed mandatory nutrition labeling. Three years later, in 1993, the Nutrition Facts Panel was created!

Food labels were required to include:

  • Calories
  • Calories from fat
  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamins A and C
  • Calcium

No other nutrients were allowed to be included! This was to prevent misleading labeling. How could this be misleading? Well, let’s say that one package of meat included the amount of selenium that was in a serving of that meat. Although all meats have selenium, consumers may be more apt to buy the one that actually has it listed on the food label.

Throughout the 1970’s, the public became more aware of the relationship between diet and health outcomes. Companies took advantage of this marketing opportunity and began making nutrition claims on their products. For example, “low in saturated fat.” All of these various claims that can be found on food products ALSO have a standard of identity that is defined by the FDA and US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Examples of nutrition claims:

  • “Fat Free”– Less than 0.5 g per labeled serving
  • “Reduced Sodium– 25% less sodium than regular product. 25% less sodium per 100g in meals/main dishes
  • “Low Sugar”– 25% less sugar than regular product
  • “Low Fat”Less than or equal to 3g per serving. </= 30% of calories in meals and main dishes.
  • When foods are “low” in one thing, another thing was probably added in order to maintain the flavor.When “low fat” was trending in the United States, companies added sugar to replace the fat. Therefore, although foods were low in fat, they were the same amount of calories as their normal fat counterpart.

Another type of claim that can be made is a health claim. Health claims explain the relationship between a certain nutrient and a disease state or health condition. All health claims must be reviewed by the FDA and they CANNOT make claims about diagnosis, cure, mitigation, or treatmentof a disease. All the claims must be explained somewhere on the package

Example of a health claim:“You can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks”

The explanation that can be found in fine print on the box:

“3 grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cheerios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Cheerios cereal provides 1 gram per serving.”


As you can see, the claims made on your packaged foods aren’t as cut and dry as they seem… and companies can absolutely take advantage of this!



 There are currently two different food label styles you will see. This is because food labels will be changing in either 2020 or 2021 (still pending), depending on company size.

Changes to be made include:

  • Some serving sizes (we are eating more now than what we did when food labels were originally created)
  • Calorie font size larger
  • Added sugars required
  • Vitamin D and potassium are added, vitamin A and vitamin C are no longer required (This is because deficiencies of vitamin A and C are not common anymore, but Americans do not always meet vitamin D and potassium requirements)

How to Interpret the Food Label

  • Serving Size: The amount recommended for consumption – all numbers following correspond with the serving size
  • Servings Per Container: How many servings are in the entire package – some packaged foods may appear as if one package is one serving but is actually 2 or more, so pay attention to this number!
  • Calories, Protein, Carbohydrates, Fats, Sodium, Fiber, Cholesterolàthese are all found on the food label. Amount is expressed in grams or milligrams

Let’s say you have a bag of chips from the gas station.

At the top it says Serving Size: 15 chips. Servings per container: 2

Calories: 170, Total Fat: 8g, Total Carbohydrates: 21g, Protein: 1g.

If you were to eat the entire bag, you would have to multiply each number by 2.

That would be 340 calories, Total fat: 16g, Total Carbohydrates: 42g, Protein: 2g

If the bag had 3 servings per container and you ate the whole thing, you would need to multiply each number by 3… and so on.


Currently, the only vitamins required on labels are vitamin A and C. the only minerals that are required are iron and calcium. If a product makes a claim about a specific nutrient (ex: “This product is a good source of Vitamin D” then Vitamin D is required on the label)

Percent Daily Values

These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. 2,000 calories is a very rough estimate of what the average American should consume. Some people may need more calories, some may need less! Because of this, % daily value may not always be a valuable number and it is important to eat a balanced diet to ensure adequate consumption of all vitamins and minerals.

Added Sugar

This new section on the food label is all the rage! I know I personally am very excited to have this on there. So, what is added sugar? Here is the FDA definition:

“The definition of added sugars includes sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”

  • Why it’s important

  • Some foods have naturally occurring sugars, as well as added sugars. For example, milk naturally contains sugar, however, there may be sugar added in yogurt, and chocolate milk.
  • Fruit has naturally occurring sugar, however, sugar may be added to fruit juices or smoothies
  • The following are all words that can mean “sugar” on a food label. Read the ingredient list!
    • Brown sugar
    • Brown rice syrup
    • Corn syrup
    • Dextrose
    • Fructose
    • Lactose
    • Malt syrup
    • Maltose
    • Maple syrup
    • Molasses
    • Nectars (peach nectar, pear nectar)
    • Sucrose
    • Crystal dextrose

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 recommends consuming no more than 10% of calories from added sugars. For someone following a 1600 calorie diet, this would be 40 grams of added sugar, an 1800 calorie diet, this would be 45 grams of added sugar; and for someone following a 2,000 calorie diet, this would be 50 grams of added sugar.

Although fruit is sometimes demonized for its sugar content, it is naturally-occurring sugar. Fruit is still high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and should be consumed on a well-balanced diet!

My goal with this article was to help you understand nutrition labels and how to use them when making food decisions. It is also to help you understand the nutrition claims made on packages so that companies cannot take advantage of you by making one product sound “healthier” than another. My advice? Focus on whole foods, but don’t be afraid of the foods you enjoy! Thanks so much for reading! Shoot me an email if you have any questions regarding this article.






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