Nutrition Labels 101: Selecting Nutritious Foods with Confidence

There is so much information on food packages, it’s often hard to understand if the food is healthy or why it’s a good source of calcium. Can food companies say anything they want on the package? The answer is no. In fact, the amount of scrutiny that the labels and messages on food packages must undergo is rigorous.

The FDA has a book called the Federal Code of Regulations that outlines the requirements for all food labels. The section of the Code that pertains to food is over 650 pages long! It provides rules for everything from definitions for words such as healthy to the required location of the Nutrition Facts label. All of these rules must be followed or the manufacturer could face regulatory action by the FDA, such as a warning letter to the manufacturer requiring them to make changes or, if a warning is not heeded, a lawsuit may be filed against the manufacturer. Because of the sheer volume of rules and regulations, multiple reviews and approvals occur before a product shows up on grocery store shelves.

Many commonly used words have strict definitions by FDA when it comes to how they are used in describing food and health. Some examples include:

  • Good Source: Products must provide between 10-19 percent of the Daily Value of a nutrient in a standardized amount of the food. Synonyms for good, as defined by FDA, include source of, contains and provide. Milk and cheese are good sources of protein. Yogurt and low-fat milk are good sources of potassium.
  • Excellent Source: This term is reserved for products that have at least 20 percent of the Daily Value of a nutrient in a standard amount. Rich and high are considered synonyms. Milk is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin and phosphorus. Knowing if a food is a good or excellent source of a nutrient can help you choose foods with higher amounts in order to meet your nutrient needs.
  • Healthy: Foods may not exceed maximum requirements for fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol in order to be called healthy. They must also contribute a positive nutrient, such as protein or fiber. Fat-free milk, fat-free yogurt, and low-fat cottage cheese are healthy.
  • Other defined terms/phrases include light/lite, reduced, less, fewer, more, lean, low-calorie, low sodium, low fat, and as much as.

Even images can be considered implied claims about the benefits of the product. A heart-shape bowl can indicate that a product is heart-healthy, which is defined. A cartoon drawing of bone may suggest that the product is good for your bones. All of these must be taken into consideration before the item makes it to stores.

Dairy products, along with most other foods, are regulated by FDA, while the USDA enforces similar regulations for meat and poultry products. All U.S. dairy manufacturers follow the FDA regulations to ensure they are accurately communicating the nutrition information and benefits of milk and other dairy foods. You can feel confident that what you read on the label of your dairy foods is truthful.