Food labels

The labels on packages are important tools you can use to find out what is in the food you eat. Make healthier food choices by learning more about the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t require the Nutrition Facts label until 1991. The FDA has updated the Nutrition Facts label. Some companies have already started using the new label, and most will be required to use it by 2020.

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Nutrition Facts label

You’ve probably seen the Nutrition Facts label on many food packages. The label shows you how many calories and how much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and other nutrients are in each serving.

View an interactive guide to understanding the Nutrition Facts label from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA updated the Nutrition Facts label to make it even easier to understand. See the updated Nutrition Facts label that most food manufacturers will have to use by 2020.

Food ingredients list

In addition to the Nutrition Facts label, most food packages also have an ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the most common ingredient listed first. The closer the ingredient is to the beginning of the list, the more there is in the product.

  • Trying to avoid foods with a lot of added sugar? Limit foods that list added sugars (including corn syrup, fructose, and sucrose) as the first few ingredients.
  • Trying to get more fiber? Choose foods with a whole grain, such as whole wheat, listed as the first or second (after water) ingredient. Or eat whole fruits and vegetables — lots of fiber, no ingredients list needed!
  • Trying to eat healthier in general? Choose foods where you recognize most of the ingredients. Sometimes preservatives (like citric acid) are necessary, but foods with a lot of unfamiliar ingredients, such as color additives, might not be as healthy.

Other labels

Some food labels, such as fat-free, reduced-calorie, or light, can be difficult to understand while shopping. These words and phrases have specific definitions.

Calorie terms

  • Low-calorie — 40 calories or less per serving
  • Reduced-calorie — at least 25% fewer calories per serving than a similar food
  • Light or lite — one-third fewer calories or half the fat content; if more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more

Sugar terms

  • Sugar-free — less than ½ gram of sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar — at least 25% less sugar per serving than a similar food

Fat terms

  • Fat-free or 100% fat free — less than ½ gram fat per serving
  • Low-fat — 3 grams or less per serving
  • Reduced-fat — at least 25% less fat than a similar food

Fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. Even if you eat fat-free foods with calories, you will gain weight if you are eating more calories than you burn with physical activity.

Also, fat-free or low-fat foods may have high amounts of sugar or salt to make the food taste better without fat. For example, a fat-free muffin may be just as high in calories as a regular muffin. The only way to know is to look at the Nutrition Facts label.

Did we answer your question about food labels?

For more information about food labels, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations: