Mohave County WIC

Food Label Basics

Food Nutrition Labels

By the end of this lesson you will:

Know which nutrients contain calories
Identify nutrient dense foods based on the nutrition label
Understand how many nutrients you are consuming based on serving sizes
Identify common terms printed on the food label


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Activity 1:  
1.Do you currently read food labels? Yes No
2. If you answered yes, what nutrients do you look for on the food label? (Name at least two)


Why Read the Food Label?

It's easy to get confused while shopping at your local grocery store.  Each product label your eye catches inevitably hits you with countless advertising slogans and nutrition terms.  Just remember the bottom line is that all these companies are basically trying to sell you something - they all want a piece of your food budget.  The package might show off “sugar free” or “fat free” but it’s the nutrition information label that’s going to tell you whether the product has just as many grams of fat or just as many calories as regular products. Most packages now have a label called “Nutrition Facts”.  This label tells you what you’re really eating.  By comparing the labels on products, you can plan a balanced diet and cut down on fat, salt, and sugar for better health.

It’s also in the nutrition information label where the manufacturer confesses its definition of
a serving size.  A single serving of a Snickers candy bar is about half of a 2-oz bar.  A serving of ice cream is usually a half-cup.  A serving of some of the cookie brands is one cookie while the serving of many pot pies is half a pot pie.  The serving size of many individual or small sized frozen pizzas is 1/3 of the “small” pizza. 
There are some ice cream bars labeled "reduced fat" that contain over 13 grams of fat per serving.  The moral of this story is – read your labels.  The more you know about the product, the better off you will be.

All packaged foods must have nutrition labels.  Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats may not have labels, but nutrition information should be available where you purchase these items.


Some tips on how to read food labels will help you use this information to choose foods to fit your needs.

Low-fat Deli Ham
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 3 slices (30g)
Serving Per Container: about 6

Amount Per Serving

Calories 50          Calories from Fat 18

                              % Daily Value**

Total Fat 2g                                  4%

Text Box: The nutrients that are listed on food labels are measured in grams or milligrams.  This refers to the weight of each nutrient.
In this case a serving of ham weighs 30 grams.  Two of those grams are fat, 7 are protein, etc.
Don’t expect the grams of each nutrient to add up to the total weight of the food.  In most foods, part of the weight comes from water.
Saturated Fat 1g                            5%


Cholesterol 25mg                           8%

Sodium 125mg                               5%

Total Carbohydrate 1g                   0%

        Dietary Fiber 0g                    0%

         Sugars 1g

Protein 7g


Vitamin A 0%                Vitamin C 0%

Calcium   0%                  Iron 0%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.  Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

                        Calories:          2,000          2,500

Total Fat        Less than       65g         80
    Sat Fat       Less than      20g         25g
Cholesterol  Less than      300mg    300mg
Sodium         Less than      2400mg  2400mg
Potassium    Less than      3500mg  3500mg
Total Carbohydrates           300g       350g
      Dietary Fiber                  25g        30g

Calories per gram:
Fat 9        Carbohydrate 4         Protein 9


Text Box: First look at the serving size. All of the nutrient information pertains to that serving, so if you eat more or less, you will have to adjust the other numbers.
Servings are given in household measurements like cups of tablespoons, or by the number of pieces or slices. The weight of that serving size is also given in grams.



What is a Gram?

A gram is a small unit of weight that weighs about the same as a small paper clip.  A milligram is much smaller.  There are 1000 milligrams in one gram.

There are about 30 grams in one ounce.  One ounce weighs the same as a stack of 4 quarters.


What are Calories?
The calories in every food come from only four sources. 





Vitamins and minerals do not contain any calories.

Protein is found in all animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese.  Beans are also a good source of protein.  Grains and vegetables have smaller amounts of protein.  Each gram of protein has 4 calories.

Carbohydrate includes sugars, starch, and fiber.  The foods highest in carbohydrate are fruits, grains, and milk.  Vegetables have smaller amounts of carbohydrates.  Each gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories.

Fat is found in animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.  It is also found in nuts and oils from soybeans, corn, olives, etc.  Each gram of fat has 9 calories.

Alcohol is found in items such as beer, wine, and liquor.  Each gram of alcohol has roughly 7 calories.


Activity 2:

1. How are the nutrients usually measured in foods?


2. Check the following nutrients that contain calories:


FDA Standards:

For food labels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines the serving size of many foods.  This may sometimes be different from the food guide pyramid.  The FDA uses a “usual serving” called the reference amount.  This makes it easier to compare different brands of a food, because the serving sizes will be the same.  This also assures that a food can’t be called low-fat only because a very small serving is used.

The FDA has defined standards for a large number of foods.  This standard defines what a food would typically contain.  In order to make a claim about reduced levels of fat, etc., the new food must be compared to the reference foods.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size 1 cup (240 ml)
Servings Per Container 8

Amount Per Serving

Calories 120         Calories from Fat 45

                             % Daily Value

Total Fat 5g                                     8%

     Saturated Fat 3 g                        15%

Cholesterol 50 mg                         17%

Sodium 125mg                                5%

Total Carbohydrate 12 g                4%

     Dietary Fiber0g                           0%

     Sugars 11g

Protein 8g


One cup of 2% milk measures 240 milliliters and weighs about 240 grams.  Five of those grams are fat, which is 2% of the total weight.  (Whole milk has 8 grams of fat.)

Think of a pat of butter on the table in a restaurant.  Each one is about 5 grams of fat.  So 2% milk is like having skim milk with one pat of butter in it.

45 (37%) of the total 120 calories come from fat.

Most of the weight of milk is water.  Fat doesn’t make up very much of the weight, but it makes up a much higher percentage of the calories.

Remember to look at the serving size when calculating nutrient intake.


1. What is the serving size of this product?
1 cup
½ cup
2. How many calories are in one serving?
3. If I ate 1 cup, how many calories would I receive?



Daily Values:

The reference amount used for nutrients on food labels is called the Daily Value (DV).  The label will list percent of the DV that the nutrient provides.  Daily values on the new nutrition labels means how a food fits into the overall diet.  The daily values are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories (You need to adjust the values to fit your own calories intake). 


Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 cup (240 ml)
Servings Per Container 8

Vitamin A 10%            Vitamin C 4%

Calcium 30%                Iron 0%

The vitamins are minerals listed above are required to be on the food label.  Others will be listed if they have been added to the food.


Terms used on labels:

You may have noticed that labels give nutrition information on the front of the food label.  Here are some examples of the terms you may see:

High, Rich in, Excellent source of- means the food contains 20% or more of the DV for that nutrient.

Good source, Contains, Provides- means the food contains 10-19% of the DV

 More, Enriched, Fortified, Added- means 10% or more of the DV of one or more nutrients has been added to the food.

Some labels say things like “lite” or “low.”  To make these claims, a product must meet the certain requirement.  You can use these claims to help you make healthy choices, but be sure to read the “Nutrition Facts” as well.

Here are some more definitions of advertisings terms you may be interested in:

"Free" means that a product contains no or only small amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and/or calories.

“% fat free” is used only on low-fat or fat-free products.  The term is a reflection of the amount of the food’s weight that is fat free.  For example, if a serving of food weights 100 grams and two of the grams come from fat, it can be called “98 percent fat free.”

“Low” means different thing in different circumstances;

ü      Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

ü      Low fat: 3 grams or fewer per serving

ü      Low saturated fat: no more than 1 gram per serving

ü      Low cholesterol: fewer than 20 milligrams per serving.

ü      Low sodium: fewer than 140 milligrams per serving.

“Reduced” lets you know that a product has been nutritionally altered and contains 25% less of the nutrient or of calories than the regular product.

“Light” means the product contains 50% grams less fat  than the regular product or the calories have been reduced by at least 1/3 of what they were in the regular product. “Light”or “Lite” can also be used to refer to the texture and color of a food; however, the label must spell this out (for example, light brown sugar).

Activity 3:

1.Which organization determines the serving size of many foods?


2. What does DV stand for?


3. If a food label states that the food is an excellent source of calcium, the food will  have at least how much calcium based on the daily value?


4.  The term “Lite” always means the food contains less fat and calories? True False


Tips for using Food Labels:

Food labels can help you shop and eat for better health.  But all the numbers on the labels can be confusing at first.  Follow these tips to help you get started using food labels to compare foods.

ü      Begin by comparing the labels on different brands of one food you normally buy, such as dried cereal or canned soup.

ü      Focus on one thing at a time.  If you want to eat less fat, compare total fat and saturated fat. If you want to eat less salt, compare sodium.  Then select the brand with the least fat or sodium.

ü      Compare how much you really eat to the serving size shown on the label.  If you eat more, multiply the numbers on the label by the number of servings you will eat.

How can I tell if the food is nutritious or not?

Still having difficulty reading the food labels?  Try Easing your way to a nutritious diet…

            Label Ease

An easy way to read food labels is right at your fingertips.  All you need is your hand and any food label. 

Look at the nutrient list on the label.  These vitamins and mineral – calcium, fiber, protein, iron and vitamin A and C – are essential to a healthy body.  However, some are often missing in the American diet.  Following these steps will help determine whether a food is nutritious or not.


Step 1:

Make a list to see if you would get these important nutrients from the food you’re testing.  Raise on finger for each nutrient that has 10% or more listed for its percent DV:





Vitamin A

Vitamin C

 Step 2:

Look at the top portions of the label.  This section lists calories, fat grams and other nutrients.  Focus on either fat grams or calories.  If you choose total fat, put one finger down if the percent daily value of total fat is more than 10%.  If you choose calories, put one finger down if there are more than 200 calories per serving (10% of the 2,000-Calorie diet).

 What do you Score?

If you have at least on finger still standing, the food you are testing is nutritious or a “nutrient-plus” food.  If you have no fingers up, the food is less nutritious, or an “energy-dense” food.

Let’s practice:

Plain Yogurt
Serving Size 1 cup (227g)

Amount Per Serving                     5

Calories 127

                                      % Daily Value

Total Fat 0 g                                   0%

Cholesterol 4mg                             1%

Sodium 174 mg                               7%

Total Carbohydrate 17 g              6%

Protein 13 g                                  26%

Vitamin C                                        3%

Calcium                                         45%

Thiamin                                           7%

Riboflavin                                     31%

Not a significant source of calories from fat, saturated fat, vitamin A, iron and niacin.  Values are not available for fiber and sugars.

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Activity 4:

1. Does the nonfat plain yogurt have 10% or more of the following:
Vitamin A
Vitamin C


2. Have many fingers do you have up?


3.Does the nonfat plain yogurt have more than 10% fat?


4. Does the nonfat plain yogurt have more than 200 calories per serving?


5. Is this a nutritious food?

You can get more practice at reading food labels at home or at your local grocery store.



Calories from Fat:

Calories from fat should be 30% or less of your daily calories.  Look for foods that have the fewest calories from fat.


Total Fat and Saturated Fat:

Total fat and saturated fat are shown in grams (g).  The fewer grams, the better.  Grams of saturated fat should be less than 1/3 of your total grams of fat.



The less cholesterol, the better.  To much cholesterol can leas to heart disease.  Your goal should be to eat less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day.



You need about 45-60 grams of protein a day.  You get protein form poultry, fish, meat, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, beans, grains, and some vegetables.


Vitamins and Minerals:

You need 100% of each of these in you daily diet.  Choose foods with the higher values.  Most foods won’t give you all you need of any one vitamin or mineral, however.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 2 cups
Serving Per Container: 1

Serving Size:

The suggested serving size is for an average portion.  All the values listed on the label are based on this amount.  If you eat 2 servings, you eat twice the value on the label.


% Daily Value:

This column tells you what percentage of the total recommended daily intake of nutrients a food give you if you eat 2,000 calories a day. 


Sodium (Salt):

The less sodium, the better.  Your sodium intake should be 2,400mg or less a day.


Total Carbohydrate:

Look for high numbers for total carbohydrate and dietary fiber, low numbers for sugars.  Carbohydrates give you long lasting energy.  A diet high in fiber can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of some cancers.



Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least.  If butter, oil, lard, cream, cheese, or meat are at the top of the list, the product is likely to be high in fat and maybe cholesterol. Also look for sugar and salt on this list.

Amount Per Serving

Calories 140              Calories from Fat 10

                                       % Daily Value*

Total Fat 1g                                       2%

        Saturated 0.5g                            3%

Cholesterol 15mg                               5%

Sodium 270mg                                  11%

Total Cholesterol 22g                         7%

        Dietary Fiber 7g                         28%


Protein 11 g

Vitamin A  2%               Vitamin C 6%

Calcium   4%                  Iron 155

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.  Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

                        Calories:          2,000          2,500

Total Fat         Less than       65g         80g
    Sat Fat        Less than      20g         25g
Cholesterol   Less than      300mg    300mg
Sodium          Less than      2400mg  2400mg
Potassium    Less than      3500mg  3500mg
Total Carbohydrates           300g       350g
       Dietary Fiber                 25g        30g

Calories per gram;

Fat 9         Carbohydrate 4         Protein 9



To receive more information on food labels click on the FDA food label website:


Which WIC Office do you go to?

Bullhead City
Lake Havasu City

Where are you taking today's lesson?




You have completed the lesson on “Food Label Basics”.  If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail one of our nutritionists.  We’ll be glad to answer any of your questions.

In Kingman you may contact a Nutritionist at
In Bullhead City you may contact a Nutritionist at
In Lake Havasu City you may contact a Nutritionist at

* If you have an extra minute, please fill out our survey on the WIC home page (where you chose this class) so we can better serve you.  Thank You.


Activity 2: 1. Ounces
2. Carbohydrates, Protein, Fats
Activity 3: 1. FDA
2. Daily Value
3. 20%
4. False.  "Lite" may indicate a lighter color or appearance.
Activity 4: 

1. Calcium, Protein
2. two
3. no
4. no
5. yes

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Revised: August 25, 2004
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