Nutrition facts label

Love your work, Alice!

My question: I have two children who have really gotten into reading the FDA-required "Nutrition Facts" label that appears on packaged food. In particular, my son (age seven) now continually reads the labels and tries to decide "which is healthier?" The problem? The nutrition label is only on things that have packages, which are more likely to be processed foods. Is there a website or other resource that gives you the nutrition facts label for generic (and healthier) things like broccoli, watermelon, apples, dried organic lentils sold in bulk, and the like? I've searched around, but can only find this information in disparate places, and nothing as nifty-looking as that label!!

Thanks, Alice!

— Mom trying to offer healthy choices, but having some technical difficulties

Dear Mom trying to offer healthy choices, but having some technical difficulties,

Kudos to you for fostering your kids’ interest in nutrition! As you mention, the Nutrition Facts label is a helpful tool for understanding how different food and drinks contribute to daily calorie and nutrient intake. These labels provide the amount of calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, and nutrients in a given product. The goal of the nutrition label is to equip the public with information to make educated choices about what they consume. You're correct that certain foods may be exempt from the labeling process (including some forms of processed foods). Nevertheless, there are plenty of resources out there, both online and in the supermarket, with nutrition information for commonly sold items.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees what goes on the nutrition label and when it’s required. You’ll find a plethora of information on the nutrition label from serving information, calories, nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein, sodium, etc.), and percent daily values. Percent daily values (often marked as %DV) are based on a 2000-calorie eating plan, which can be confusing because that's more calories than some folks may need. When an individual consumes a serving of the food, the value listed refers to the percentage of the daily recommended amount they’ve ingested, again based on a 2000-calorie eating plan. The number of calories and percent daily values for each person will vary based on factors such as height, weight, age, and sex. For an in-depth explanation about the elements on a nutrition label or to explore your own nutrition needs, you can visit the FDA website.

It’s also worth noting that the label was updated based on a newer understanding of eating trends and nutrient needs of Americans, as well as the public’s feedback. These changes include:

  • Updated serving sizes: A serving size is a standardized amount of food that is typically consumed (not the amount that’s recommended). In addition to updating these measures based on the latest science, the font sizes were increased to make the serving size more prominent. As a note, some packages may contain more than one serving!
  • More prominent calorie information: The new label features larger and bolder calorie information. It’s good to keep in mind that the total number of calories needed per day will vary from person to person. Also, the number of servings you have will determine the total calories you consume so if you eat two servings, it’s twice as many calories.
  • Revised percent daily values: These values were adjusted based on new scientific findings. Anything five percent daily value or lower is considered a low serving of a nutrient and anything 20 percent daily value or greater is considered a high serving of a nutrient. Again, this number is based on a 2000-calorie eating plan.
  • Additional nutrient content: The nutrients that are newer to the party are the ones for which Americans may not meet the daily recommendations such as vitamin D and potassium, which both provide many health benefits. Certain nutrients, such as calcium (which helps to prevent osteoporosis) and iron (which helps to reduce the risk of anemia), have stayed on the list. Added sugars are also new to the list to help people reduce the amount they consume. This nutrient was incorporated to help people figure out how much sugar occurs naturally versus what’s added during processing.

At this time though, curious consumers won’t find Nutrition Facts labels on all foods, even if these foods have packaging. Unless the item makes a nutrition claim, some specific exceptions to food labeling requirements include:

  • Ready-to-eat food that isn’t for immediate consumption, but is prepared primarily on site — for example, bakery, deli, and candy store items.
  • Food shipped in bulk, as long as it isn’t for sale in that form to consumers and will be processed or packaged again before it’s sold.
  • Medical foods, such as those used to address the nutritional needs of people with certain diseases.
  • Foods that contain insignificant amounts of nutrients, such as plain, unsweetened coffee and tea, and some spices.

You bring up a good point that it’s difficult to find nutrient labels for fresh foods. The FDA created a voluntary program to promote retailer labeling of the top 20 most commonly sold fruits, vegetables, and fish. The nutrient information can be found in a brochure, leaflet, notebook, sticker, or even video format, located in the appropriate grocery department. If that doesn’t do the trick, you can also find this and more information right at your fingertips! Nutrient information for thousands of foods from alfalfa sprouts to zucchini can be accessed at the click of a button by searching on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) FoodData Central website. A simple keyword search and portion size specification will yield the complete nutrient profile of your food. Similarly, there are tons of downloadable posters for fruits, vegetables, and fish available on the FDA website. In terms of other nifty-looking resources, you and your kids might enjoy checking out the variety of Youth Outreach Materials that the FDA makes accessible online.

Empowering yourself with the knowledge of how to choose nutritious foods is a powerful skill. Being familiar with the benefits of, and encouraging, health supporting behaviors are key components of well-being. Hopefully these resources will help expand the possibilities of nutrition exploration for you and your kids!

Last updated Nov 13, 2020
Originally published Sep 17, 2004

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