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Cracking the Code on Food and Nutrition Labels

These tips can help you explain food-labeling rules to clients.

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About half of shoppers report reading nutrition labels “most of the time” or “always” (Johnsen 2013). However, reading labels and understanding them are two different things. Even seasoned fitness professionals with extensive knowledge of nutrition can have trouble interpreting food labels. How much more confusing must it be for the average consumer? In addition, food-labeling regulations are complex and can contain excessive jargon. Still, with some basic guidance, fitness professionals can help their clients become smart label readers.

Translating the “Alphabet Soup” of Nutrient-Intake and Food-Labeling Standards

To make sense of food labels, you have to be able to distinguish among multiple individual nutrient-intake standards—which can apply to people of different ages, genders and life stages (pregnancy and lactation, for instance)—and the nutrient intake standards used in food labeling. A two- or three-letter acronym represents each of these standards; here’s a look at the principles behind them:

RDA. Recommended Dietary Allowances were first published by the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 1943 (Harper 1985) and were revised every 5-10 years as new scientific information became available. Still updated periodically, RDAs are now a subcategory of the Dietary Reference Intakes (see below).

DRI. Dietary Reference Intakes were introduced in 1997 when the IOM broadened its scope by including not only RDAs but also new nutrient-intake standards that apply to several life-stage and gender groups (see Table 1). DRI tables can be downloaded at http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietary-guidance/dietary-reference-intakes/dri-tables.

DV. Daily Values are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; they’ve been required on food labels since 1994. DVs have two subclasses:

  • DRV. Daily Reference Values can vary depending on caloric requirements. Information on the labels is intended to apply to people aged 4 years and older. DRVs typically apply to daily diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories, although there are also DRVs for 3,200 calories.
  • RDI. Reference Daily Intakes are similar to the U.S. RDAs found on food labels before 1994. RDIs apply mainly to essential vitamins and minerals, with four sets that apply to infants, toddlers, people aged 4 years and older, and pregnant or lactating women. DV tables for each group are available at http://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/dailyvalues.aspx.
  • One problem with DVs on food labels is that many foods, like breakfast cereals, are consumed by people with dramatically different individual nutrient requirements. Owing to space limitations, labels on most food packages will list DRVs for two calorie levels and one set of RDI numbers (typically the 4-and-older category). Thus, DVs provide only a general guideline for comparison, and they won’t necessarily match the specific nutrient needs of the consumer of that product.

    Trans Fats, Sugars, % of DV

    You may have noticed that food labels have no DVs for trans fats or sugars. That’s because the IOM (2006) simply advises consumers to keep their trans fat intake as low as possible; it does not offer a specific recommendation. As for sugars, the IOM advises that no more than 25% of our overall energy intake should come from added sugars (IOM 2006). Unfortunately, sugar values reported on the Nutrition Facts panel do not distinguish between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars.

    You also might have noticed that some products list a “% Daily Value” for protein, while others do not. If a product makes a claim like “high protein,” its protein content must be listed in grams and % DV (Food Consulting Company 2013). Otherwise, listing the protein content only in grams is acceptable.

    Understanding Serving Size, Calories, and Calories From Fat

    Serving size. The FDA has established serving sizes, or Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed, for 139 food product categories. For example, a typical RACC for a beverage is 8 fluid ounces. For more about the RACC standards, go to http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=101.12.

    Be careful to note the serving size and number of servings per container on food labels. For example, the label on a 20-ounce bottle of soda may list 120 calories per 8-ounce serving, but if you drink the whole bottle, all the label values (and % DV) must be multiplied by 2.5. Failing to take the number of servings into account is one of the most common slip-ups consumers make when reading food labels.

    Calories. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats have 4, 4 and 9 calories per gram, respectively, so the calorie value on a food label should be represented by this mathematical formula: (fat grams x 9) + (carbohydrate grams x 4) + (protein grams x 4). However, the calorie value on the label will not always exactly match this calculation. Dietary fiber is included in the carbohydrate gram count, and dietary fibers typically have 0-2 calories per gram. In addition, some rounding is allowed.

    Calories from fat. This percentage is calculated by dividing the calories from fat by the total calories in the food and then multiplying that result by 100. For example, the flatbread in our example (see the sidebar “Anatomy of a Food Label”) contains 5 g fat; multiplying that by 9 cal/g equals 45 cal from fat (rounded up to 50 on the label). Thus, 50 cal from fat divided by 180 cal total is 0.28, which converts to 28%.

    Interpreting the Ingredient Listing

    Ingredients in a food are listed in decreasing order by their weight in the product. Thus, ingredients at the top of the list are more plentiful than ingredients at the end. Our whole-grain flatbread lists these ingredients:

    Whole wheat flour (whole wheat flour, ascorbic acid as dough conditioner, enzyme), enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, ascorbic acid as dough conditioner, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, enzyme, folic acid), buttermilk (skim milk, dry buttermilk, bacterial culture), water, soybean oil, wheat bran, cultured wheat flour, sugar, baking powder (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), wheat germ, dextrin, wheat gluten, vegetable fiber, yeast.

    The first ingredient is “whole wheat flour,” which meets the FDA definition of whole grain: cereal grains consisting of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel, which includes the bran, germ and endosperm (FDA 2009a).

    Allergen Claims

    FDA rules come from the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. The FDA (2010) has identified eight major food allergens that account for more than 90% of all food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (for example, walnuts, almonds and pecans), peanuts, wheat and soy. The law requires that the label list the food source name of all major allergens used to make the food. Good manufacturing practices dictate that food companies appropriately clean food-manufacturing equipment between processing batches of allergen-containing and non-allergen-containing foods to avoid cross-contamination. However, some manufacturers may say on the label that the product is made on equipment that is also used to process a food containing a particular allergen. It is important to note that FDA guidance for the food industry states that food allergen advisory statements such as “may contain [allergen]” or “produced in a facility that also uses [allergen]” should not be used as a substitute for adhering to current good manufacturing practices and must be truthful and not misleading. For our whole-grain flatbread product, the allergy statements are as follows: “Contains wheat and milk. May contain eggs, soy, tree nuts and sesame seeds.”

    Clearly, this product is not for people with allergies to these foods. It is also not acceptable for people with gluten-related issues such as celiac disease and gluten sensitivity (see Table 2 for the FDA definition of gluten-free).

    Understanding Definitions for Nutrient Content Claims

    The FDA has definitions for a large number of terms related to nutrient content claims. For example, if a product claims to be a “good” source of, say, vitamin A, it must have at least 10% of the DV; if it claims to be an “excellent” source of vitamin A or be “high in” vitamin A, it must have at least 20% DV (FDA 2009b). Table 3 lists several other common nutrient content claims.

    Interpreting food labels can be confusing. We hope that this article will help you clear up some of your clients’ uncertainties about food labels. Being a skilled label reader can be of great help for making better nutritional choices.

    Label Reading Q&A

    Q. Is “no added sugar” all it’s cracked up to be?

    A. Not necessarily. The product could still have a high level of naturally occurring sugar. Or it may contain carbohydrate ingredients that might not be technically classified as sugars (such as maltodextrin) but can still raise blood sugar levels substantially.

    Q. What about something that is “lightly sweetened”?

    A. The FDA has no definition for “lightly sweetened,” so it is difficult to tell how much sugar was used to sweeten the product.

    Q. Is “multigrain” the same as “whole grain”?

    A. No. Multigrain simply refers to the presence of different grains in the product. However, it is not specific about which parts of the grain (such as the bran, where dietary fiber resides) are present and in what ratios. For more fiber, you need to specifically look for terms like “whole grain,” “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.” Caramel coloring can be added to “multigrain” products to make them look whole-wheat, but they will typically not have as much dietary fiber.

    Q. Is it correct to label 2% milk as “98% fat-free” or “low fat”?

    A. No. For a product to be labeled 98% fat-free, it would have to be a low-fat product. As indicated in Table 3, for a product to be classified as “low fat,” it must contain no more than 3 g total fat per serving. Generally, 2% milk is 2% fat by weight. For an 8-ounce serving (~240 g), 2% milk contains about 5 g fat. It does qualify for the reduced-fat label when compared with whole milk, but it does not qualify for “low fat.”

    Q. What does “free-range” chicken really mean?

    A. The USDA definition of free-range basically means the chicken had shelter, unlimited access to food and fresh water and continuous access to the outdoors during the production cycle (USDA 2012b). However, there are no rules for how large the outdoor space must be. For answers to similar questions (cage-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised, etc.), see the USDA Web page on the National Organic Program (USDA 2012b).


    FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2009a. The scoop on whole grains. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm151902.htm; retrieved July 22, 2013.
    FDA. 2009b. Guidance for industry: A food labeling guide. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006828.htm; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    FDA. 2010. Food facts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Food allergies: What you need to know. www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/UCM220117.pdf; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    FDA. 2011. A Glimpse at ÔÇÿGluten-Free’ Food Labeling. www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM266206.pdf; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    Food Consulting Company. 2013. Reader Q&A archive. www.foodlabels.com/q&a.htm; retrieved July 22, 2013.
    Harper, A.E. 1985. Origin of Recommended Dietary Allowances—an historic overview. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 41 (1),140-148.
    IOM (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies). 2006. Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
    Johnsen, M. 2013. Report: Health and wellness spells opportunity in today’s economy. Drug Store News. www.drugstorenews.com/article/report-health-and-wellness-spells-opportunity-todays-economy; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    Long, J.L., Park-Suk, H., & Tyler, L.C. 2013. Does FDA have a definition of “natural” or not? www.natlawreview.com/article/does-fda-have-definition-natural-or-not; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 2012a. Labeling organic products. www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004446; retrieved July 19, 2013.
    USDA. 2012b. National organic program. www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPConsumers; retrieved July 22, 2013.


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    Steven Hertzler, PhD, RD

    I am a Senior Research Scientist at Abbott Nutrition, working with EAS Sports Nutrition. I have a BS in Dietetics from Viterbo College in LaCrosse, WI, and a PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian in Ohio. I have expertise in sports nutrition and carbohydrate metabolism. I am also a former competitive bodybuilder. I have 20 scientific publications and over 20 years experience as a dietitian.

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