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Nutrition Guide

Breaking the Code of Food Labels

In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed its requirements for food labels on almost all packaged foods. The labels now have a more uniform appearance and, once understood, can be a very useful tool for the individual concerned about fat and cholesterol, fiber, calories, or sodium intake.

One of the most basic modifications concerns portion size. While portion size was once left to the manufacturer’s discretion, the FDA has redefined it as the amount that an individual actually consumes; it must also be expressed in standard household and metric measure (cups, teaspoons, liters, ounces, etc.) These changes help the consumer to comparison shop, both nutritionally and economically: one can determine how many servings are really in each package, as well as identify the nutritional value of each "real" serving.

Another style change with benefit for health-conscious consumers is the expression of calorie content, with breakdown by grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates.


Fat grams have a nutritional value of 9 calories each, while proteins and carbohydrates each carry a nutritional value of 4 calories. Therefore, if an item has 5 grams of fat, then 45 of its total calories are from fat.


This is particularly useful when one is concerned about the overall percentage of fat in one’s diet. The FDA presents two recommended calorie intake levels, each with a guideline of 30% of total intake from fat calories: for a female adult the level is 2,000 calories per day, and 600 fat calories, or less than 65 grams of fat. For a male adult the level is 2,500 calories per day, with 750 fat calories, or less than approximately 80 grams of fat. The food labels not only present the fat grams in each serving, but also designate whether those fats are derived from saturated or unsaturated sources. A guideline of 20 grams per day of saturated fat is recommended (25 grams for a 2,500-calorie intake).


The guideline of 30 percent of calories from fat can be more easily understood using the new labels: If a slice of bread has 90 calories, and includes 3 grams of fat, then it exactly fits the guideline fat level of 30%. See calculation below:

3 grams fat x 9 calories/fat gram = 27 fat calories in serving

27/90 = 30% of calories in the serving are from fat

Note: the guideline of 30% applies to the overall diet, not to every individual food; grains, fruits and vegetables should contain less than 30% fat, to be counterbalanced by fattier foods in the dairy, meat, fish, poultry and fatty food groups.

Another example of how to calculate percentage of fat: a "premium" ice cream, with a portion size of cup, has 220 calories and 16 grams of fat. The calculations follow:

16 grams fat x 9 calories/fat gram = 144 calories in serving

144/220 = 65% of calories in the serving are from fat

This allows one to adjust perspective on portion size. A portion size with "only" 220 calories could still involve a high consumption of fat.


Other specific food label information can be useful to those with dietary restrictions. Sodium content is presented, along with the portion’s percentage of the FDA's recommended daily guideline of 2,400 milligrams.

Cholesterol amount per serving is also presented on the label, with its percentage of the overall FDA recommended daily intake of 300 milligrams.

Vitamin and mineral information is usually available, although it is not extensive. The product’s level of vitamins A, C, calcium and iron are generally available on each label, and if a food offers particular benefit in another area (e.g., vitamin E) it is usually presented as well. Fiber content is also listed, for those concerned about getting more fiber into their diet: the daily reference value is 25 grams. Finally, ingredient declarations are now required, and food additives must be explicitly listed on the label, as some people have specific food allergies and should carefully monitor products for unexpected ingredients (e.g. color additives and caseinate, a milk derivative used in "non-dairy" products).


These guidelines offer obvious benefits to the consumer, and are paralleled by the FDA’s monitoring of advertising claims by food manufacturers as to the healthiness of their products, such as "light" or "reduced fat". A self-proclaimed "low-fat" product must meet guidelines as presented by the FDA (less than 3 grams per serving) and the consumer can monitor just how "low" the fat content is by checking the value on the label. Beware: products that were always high in carbohydrates/sugars (e.g. hard candies, pasta, breads) are now touting themselves as "low-fat" and "low-cholesterol"; this does not mean that the products are inherently healthy.

For more specific information about the FDA guidelines, see the US Food and Drug Administration Web site.

See also HeartInfo articles:
Updated Dietary Guidelines From the American Heart Association
A Diet That Restricts Daily Fat Intake to 10% Can Help in the Fight Against Heart Disease: A Discussion of Fat, Myths, and Dr. Dean Ornish's Diets
Burning Calories From High-Fat Meals: How the Body Reacts
Restaurant Nutritional Claims Must Be Supported According to New FDA Regulations

SOURCE: U.S. Food and Drug Administration Publication No. BG 95-12

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