Understanding Food Labels

Understanding Food Labels

reading food label

As previously discussed in various articles located under the Getting Started section of our website, there are seven fundamental key fitness components that are necessary to achieve good overall health, fitness and mental well-being.

The seven key primary fitness components are as follows:

  1. Cardiovascular/Aerobic Conditioning

  2. Strength Training and Muscular Development

  3. Stretching – Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons

  4. Core Stability

  5. Nutrition and Supplementation

  6. Mental Rest and Relaxation

  7. Sleep

Achieving each of the seven key components listed above is paramount to good health. Physical fitness is required to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, maintain a healthy level of lean muscle mass, minimize bone density loss, ward off disease, and realize a whole host of additional health benefits. Physical and mental rest, relaxation and sleep are required as there are several bodily functions that take place while the body is at rest.

A healthy nutritional diet is required as well, as it is the mechanism that supplies the human body with the appropriate fuel to perform all of bodily functions. For example, calcium is responsible for regulating the passage of nutrients into and out of each and every cell in the human body.  The intent of this article is to discuss the importance of understanding the information listed on the food labels of all food products.

Content Requirements for Food Labels

In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law. The USDA and the FDA designed the content requirements for food labels to assist consumers in better understanding the nutritional value of each packaged food item that is sold for consumption.

As defined by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, all food labels must contain the following information:

food label nutrition facts

  1. Common name of the product

  2. Name and address of the product’s manufacturer

  3. Net contents in terms of weight, measure or count

  4. Ingredient List – Lists the ingredients in descending order of predominance and weight. In the case of the food label displayed to the right, the ingredients are listed at the bottom of the label. In addition, the ingredients are arranged in descending order of predominance – wheat flour, unsweetened chocolate, erythitol, etc.

  5. Serving Sizes – Each food label must identify the size of a serving. In the food label located to the right, the total number of servings is 16. The nutritional information provided on the food label is based on one serving of the food.

  6. Nutrition Facts – Each food label must identify the individual quantities of each specified nutrient and food constituent found in one serving. 


  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories

Macronutrients Per Serving

Hence, based on the information located on the food label above, Table #1 depicts the percentages of each macronutrient present in one serving.

Food Label Grams Calculation Total Calories % of Total
Calories     60 100%
Fat 2 2 x 9 18 30%
Carbohydrate 15 15 x 4 60 100%
Protein 2 2 x 4 8 13%

Table #1: Percentage of each macronutrient present in one serving from Food Label


  • As can be seen is Table #1, the total number of calories listed on a food label is lower than the calculated total number of calories per actual serving. This is often the case, as many food labels underestimate the total number of calories per serving.

  • Of the 15 grams of total carbohydrates, 7 grams (47%) are derived from simple sugars and sugar alcohols instead of complex carbohydrates (the latter of which is preferred).

  • Of the 2 grams of total fat, 1 gram (or 50%) is derived from saturated fat – the type of fat that should be avoided.

While there are varying opinions on the healthiest ratio of calories derived from carbohydrates, fat and protein, one of the most agreed-upon ratios within the medical field is 40%-30%-30%, respectively. In other words, 40% of an individual’s daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 30% from protein. Table #2, based on a total daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories, depicts the number of calories derived from carbohydrates, fat and protein. In addition, Table #2 contains the associated number of grams of each nutrient category based on the 40%-30%-30% ratio. 

Average Daily Caloric Intake of 2,000 Calories Under the 40%-30%-30% Ratio
Food Element Total Daily Calories Total Daily Grams
Calories 800 200
Fat 600 66.67
Protein 600 150

Table #2: Number of calories and grams of each macronutrient based on a 2,000 calorie diet at a ratio of 40%-30%-30%

% Daily Values

The % Daily Values section provides an estimate of the percentage of total nutrients that one serving of the specific food type will provide. Using the data from Table #1, coupled with the assumption that the average daily caloric intake for an individual is 2,000 calories, one serving of the food listed on the food label would provide 3% of the recommended daily intake of fat (2 grams out of a total of 66.67 grams allowed), 17% of the recommended daily intake of carbohydrates (15 grams out of a total of 200 grams allowed) and 1% of the recommended daily intake of protein (2 grams out of a total of 150 grams allowed).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined guidelines relative to specific claims and descriptive terms that a manufacturer may place on their food labels to promote their products. Table #3 depicts the various labels that a manufacturer may include on their products when they meet any of the conditions listed in the first column.

Food Label Claim FDA Requirements that Must be Met Before Placing the Claim on the Food Label
Fat-Free Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, with no added fat or oil
Low Fat 3 grams or less of fat per serving
Less Fat At least 25% less fat than the comparison food
Saturated Fat Free Less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans-fatty acids per serving
Cholesterol-Free Less than 2 mg cholesterol per serving, and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Low Cholesterol Less than 20 mg cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Reduced Calorie At least 25% fewer calories per serving than the comparison food
Low Calorie 40 calories or less per serving
Extra Lean Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood
Lean Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 g of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood
Light (fat) At least 50% less fat than in the comparison food (ex: 50% less fat than our regular cheese)
Light (calories) 1/3 fewer calories than the comparison food
High-Fiber 5 grams or more fiber per serving
Sugar-Free Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
Sodium-Free or Salt-Free Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Low Sodium 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
Very Low Sodium 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
Healthy A food low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, containing at least 10% of the Daily Values for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.
High, Rich In or Excellent Source 20% or more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient per serving
Less, Fewer or Reduced At least 25% less of a given nutrient or calories than the comparison food
Low, Little, Few or Low Source Of An amount that would allow frequent consumption of the food without exceeding the Daily Value for the nutrient
Good Source Of, More or Added The food provides 10% more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient than the comparison food

Table #3: Manufacturer food label claim and description requirements


By taking the time to read food labels, you will have a better understanding of what types of macronutrients you are consuming, the percentage of each macronutrient per serving, the ratio of carbohydrates to fat to protein, and the total number of calories consumed per serving. 

reading food label

Individuals looking to lose weight can utilize this information to moderate their daily food consumption and actively decrease their fat intake. In addition, an individual can calculate their total caloric intake and compare it to their basal metabolic rate (BMR) to ensure that the number of calories they are consuming on a daily basis is lower than their BMR.

By having a good understanding of how to read and interpret food labels, you will have an additional tool to assist you in ensuring that you are consuming healthy and nutritious foods that will support good health and fitness. In addition, by knowing the exact macronutrient quantities in the foods you consume, you can adjust your eating habits to improve your overall probability of successfully obtaining your weight loss goals.

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