The Diet Detective: Understand Your Food Labels

Why it Matters: The food label indicates how much of these nutrients is contained in a single serving of the food relative to what the FDA has determined to be the recommended Daily Value (DV) or the average need of the "typical" consumer -- although this can vary depending on an individual's weight and gender.

This is really helpful if you want to get a quick assessment of whether you're eating too much or too little of a nutrient. For instance, a food that has a Daily Value of 20 percent for fat per serving provides 20 percent of the daily requirement for fat in a single day. You should not exceed 100 percent of the Daily Value.

Here is another example: If the recommended Daily Value for sodium is 2,400 milligrams, and a serving of cereal provides 240 milligrams of sodium, the cereal's DV for sodium would be 10 percent. Also, keep in mind that 5 percent DV or less is low for all nutrients, including those you want to limit (e.g., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium).

Also, these Daily Values are based on estimates for someone eating a 2,000-calorie diet and, therefore, may not apply to you.

According to the FDA (the governing body regulating food labels): "There are two sets of reference values for reporting nutrients in nutrition labeling: 1) Daily Reference Values (DRVs) and 2) Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs).

DRVs are established for adults and children 4 or more years of age, as are RDIs, with the exception of protein. DRVs are provided for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sodium, potassium and protein.

RDIs are provided for vitamins and minerals and for protein for children less than 4 years of age and for pregnant and lactating women. In order to limit consumer confusion, however, the label includes a single term (i.e., Daily Value (DV)), to designate both the DRVs and RDIs. Specifically, the label includes the % DV, except that the % DV for protein is not required unless a protein claim is made for the product or if the product is to be used by infants or children under 4 years of age."
The FDA is currently reviewing nutrient Daily Values (DVs), most of which are still based on recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) established in 1968. A lot has changed since 1968 in terms of nutrition research.
Healthy and related terms ("health," "healthful," "healthfully," "healthfulness," "healthier," "healthiest," "healthily" and "healthiness")

What it Means:

The criteria for using the term "healthy" on a label are as follows:

  • Total fat = 3 grams or less per serving/RACC (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed), or, for meals and main dishes, 3 grams or less per 100 grams and not more than 30 percent of calories from fat.
  • Saturated fat = 1 gram or less per serving/RACC and 15 percent or less calories; for meals and main dishes, 1 gram or less per 100 grams and less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
  • Sodium = 480 milligrams or less per serving/RACC; for meals and main dishes 600 milligrams or less.
  • Cholesterol = 60 milligrams or less per serving/RACC; for meals and main dishes 90 milligrams or less.
  • Beneficial nutrients = Contains at least 10 percent of DV per serving/RACC for vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber except: raw fruits and vegetables; frozen or canned single-ingredient fruits and vegetables; at least 10 percent of the DV for two of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber for a main dish, or of three for a meal.
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