How to read food and drink labels

Understanding what’s in the foods and drinks we can eat can help us make healthier decisions. In many countries, including the United States, packaged foods and beverages — the types that come in cans, boxes, bottles, jars, and bags — include nutrition and ingredient information on their labels. However, these labels can sometimes be misleading and difficult to decipher. Read on to learn more about the types of information that can be printed on food and drink packaging and for tips on how best to interpret this information.

Understanding Food and Beverage Dates

There are three types of product dates commonly printed on packaged food and beverages:

  • “Sell by” indicates the length of time the manufacturer suggests a store sells items such as meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy. Be sure to buy before this date.
  • “Use Until” indicates how long items will be at peak quality. If you buy or use the product after this date, some may be expired or less tasty.
  • “Best if used by” (or “best if used by”) indicates how long the item will have the best flavor or quality.

None of these dates tell you when an item is no longer safe to eat or drink. In fact, product dates are not required by federal regulations and are added voluntarily by manufacturers.

Learn more about food safety and the elderly.

How to read the nutrition facts label

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a Nutrition Facts label on most packaged foods and beverages. At the top of the Nutrition Facts label, you will find the total number of servings in the container and the serving size of the food or drink. The serving size on the label is based on how much people can typically eat at one time and is not a recommendation of how much to eat. Learn more about portions and portion sizes.

Two nutrition facts labels

The rest of the information on the label is usually based on one serving of the food or drink (see food label A). However, if the container holds more than one serving but can usually be eaten all at once – such as a pint of ice cream – the label will have two additional columns (see food label B). The first of these columns lists the calories and nutrients in a serving. The second lists the same information for the entire container. If you eat a whole package of food containing two servings, you will get twice as many calories, nutrients, sugar and fat as in one serving.

Not sure how much of these nutrients you should be consuming? Check out our resources on how much and what seniors should eat to support healthy aging.

Understanding Percent Daily Value (%DV)

Percent Daily Value (%DV) indicates the amount of a nutrient in one serving of the food or drink that contributes to a total daily diet of 2,000 calories. Although the average person needs 2,000 calories a day to maintain weight, individuals may need more or less depending on their lifestyle. If you eat fewer calories per day and eat one serving, your % DV will be higher than what you see on the label. Some nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label do not have % DV, but consumers can still use the number of grams to compare and choose products.

Most seniors exceed recommended limits for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Compare and choose foods to get less than 100% each day, making sure to adjust the number of calories in your diet. Additionally, many seniors do not get the recommended amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. Eating enough foods containing these nutrients may reduce the risk of developing certain diseases and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure. Compare and choose foods to aim for 100% DV of these nutrients.

%DV information is not calculated with the unique needs of older adults in mind. Read the nutrition label as a whole to determine how a particular food or drink fits into your healthy eating habits.

How to read the ingredient list

Ingredients in packaged foods and beverages are listed separately from (and often below) the Nutrition Facts label. This information lists each ingredient in the product by its common or common name, and in descending order of weight. That is, the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.

Be on the lookout for terms that indicate added sugar, such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and high fructose corn syrup. Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame should also be consumed in moderation.

Light, low calorie, organic labeling – what does it mean?

Image link to 5 tips for choosing healthier foods as you age infographic

Read and share this infographic to learn how to make healthier food choices as you age.

Sometimes food and drink packaging includes terms that try to convince the consumer that the food is healthy. To avoid confusion, the FDA sets specific rules for what food manufacturers may call “light”, “low”, “reduced”, “free” and other terms. This type of labeling may have little to do with the nutritional value of the food. Here are some examples and what they mean:

  • Light. Low-fat products are processed to reduce calories or fat. It may sound healthy, but some “light” products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added to compensate for the calorie and fat reduction, such as sugar.
  • Low fat, low calorie, low carb. These foods have a legal limit on the number of calories, grams of fat, or carbohydrates (carbs) they can contain per serving. However, if a serving is very small, you may end up eating multiple servings in one sitting, ultimately consuming the same amount of fat, calories, and carbs as the regular version of the food.
  • Multigrain. It sounds healthy, but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. Unless the product is marked as whole grain, it is possible that the grains are all refined grains, which have likely lost important nutrients during processing.
  • ORGANIC. Products declared organic must be produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, biotechnology or ionizing radiation. Organic animals should be fed organic food and not be injected with hormones or antibiotics. Remember that organic foods can still contain the same number of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates as a non-organic food.

While these descriptions or terms are regulated by the FDA, others are not, so always check the nutrition label to see if the product meets your healthy eating goals.

If you are unsure of an ingredient or label description, visit the FDA website to learn more.

Read about it in Spanish. Lea sobre ise tema en español.

For more information on food labels

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up-to-date.

Content Revised: February 24, 2022

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