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Understanding Food Labels

Reading food labels is a skill we all should have. When shopping, use food labels to help guide you in making healthy and nutritious food choices. Sometimes, though, it may seem as if the food label is written in a different language.

What does it all mean? What should I look for? Is that good? Bad? High? Low? Following are the basics of the food label.

Serving Size

The serving size is the first thing on a food label that you should look for. It shows the amount of food on which the Nutrition Facts are based; therefore, it gives us a basis for everything else we are about to read. When determining if a food is a good choice for you, ask yourself “how many servings will I be eating?”If one serving size on the food label is ½ cup and you know you will eat a whole cup, you will need to double the calories, fat, sodium, and everything else on the food label. Be especially careful with “personal sized” items such as a bottle of soda or a smaller bag of chips. Often times, these items have 2 to 2.5 servings per container even though the normal consumer will consume the entire item.


Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from the food. Calories are listed as the second item on the food label, just under serving size. Calories from fat are also shown on the Nutrition Facts. Calories from fat alert you to what many call “empty calories.” Empty calories have no nutritional value and come from solid fats and added sugars. You can gauge how many empty calories are in a product by looking at the calories from fat.

We all need calories as fuel for our bodies. Foods and beverages vary in how many calories and nutrients they contain. It is important to get the right mix – enough nutrients, but not too many calories.

% Daily Value

The % Daily Value helps consumers determine whether a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. It is a good, quick guide.

As a general rule, 20% or more of a nutrient is high and 5% or less is low. For example, if the Total Fat is 5% or less, that’s great – it means it is low in fat. If the Total Fat is 21%, that is not good – it means it is high in fat. Depending on the nutrient you are looking at, high could be good or bad. If the fiber’s % Daily Value is 23%, that is awesome! That means you have chosen a food high in fiber.

Remember, % Daily Value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet and your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs. To see a customized food plan and how many calories you, specifically, need per day, create a free profile using the Super Tracker on the  ChooseMyPlate website.


Nutrients need to be balanced to maintain a healthy diet. Aim low on fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Limiting these nutrients can reduce your risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Look for foods that are high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. These key nutrients will help fight disease and support a healthy body.

What do the claims really mean?

  • Calorie free: less than 5 calories per serving
  • Reduced calorie: at least 25% fewer calories than regular version
  • Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Fat free (trans or saturated): less than 0.5 grams fat per serving
  • Reduced fat: at least 25% less fat than regular version
  • Low fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving
  • Sugar free: less than 0.5 grams sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar: at least 25% less sugar than regular version
  • No added sugar: no sugars added during processing or packing, including ingredients that contain sugar such as juice or dry fruit
  • Sodium free: less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
  • Reduced sodium: at least 25% less sodium than regular version
  • Low sodium: 140 mg or less sodium per serving
  • Light/Lite: one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat than regular version
  • High, rich in, excellent source of: 20% or more of Daily Value
  • Good source of, contains, provides: 10% to 19% of Daily Value
  • More, enriched, fortified, added: 10% or more of Daily Value

Author: Hannah Fincham, WVU Monongalia County Families and Health Extension Agent
Last Reviewed: May 23, 2017

  • Share Our Strength’s Shopping Matters for Adults facilitator guide
  • Aramouni, F., Blakeslee, K. (2006).  What’s on a Food Label? Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service.