5 Understanding Food Labels and Health Claims


  • How to use a Food Label
  • Health Claims & Foods
  • Characteristics of a Nutrition Expert

The Food label

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act made it a law that foods sold in the United States have a food label that provides the accurate contents of nutrients within them.  This label is called a Nutrition Facts panel, which gives information on the number of servings per container, the number of calories per serving, and certain nutrients.  Specifically, it lists the macronutrients and four of the most important micronutrients people need to pay special attention to, such as Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and potassium.

The Nutrition Facts panel not only tells you about the nutritional content of the product, but it also allows you to compare products. Because the serving sizes are included on the label, you can see how much each nutrient is in each serving.  Knowing how to read the label is important because of the way some foods are presented. For example, a package of mixed nuts may seem like a healthy snack to eat on the way to class. However, it is important to look at that label before you decide.  Does it contain one serving or multiple servings? Unless you are buying the individual serving packages, chances are the bag you picked up provides multiple servings. Always check the food label to evaluate total calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates,  vitamin, and sodium content.  The percent DV (daily value) is the nutrient’s percentage in the food about its recommended intake. It is a guide to determine if a food is a good or poor source of nutrients.



Do You Know

Click on the interactive label link below and explore each part of the nutrition facts panel.


Claims on Labels

For claims on labels to be accurate, the FDA has standardized words (see table below). If a food label states that they are ‘low-fat,’ they can only have 3 or fewer grams of fat!

Common Label Terms Defined

Term Explanation
low-fat Three or fewer grams of fat
low salt Fewer than 140 milligrams of sodium
low cholesterol Fewer than 20 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat
lean FEver than a set amount of grams of fat for that particular cut of meat
high It contains more than 20% of the nutrient’s daily value
good source Contains 10 to 19% of nutrient’s daily value
light/lite Contains ⅓ fewer calories or 50% less fat; if more than half of the calories come from fat, then fat content must be reduced by 50% or more
organic It contains 95% organic ingredients

Source: Food Labeling Guide. US Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov.

Health Claims & Foods

To keep companies from making false claims, the FDA provides food manufacturers’ regulations in putting labels on packages that promote health. There are three levels of health claims:

  1. A health claim is supported by scientific evidence.  An example is “reduces heart disease.”
  2. A qualified claim has supportive evidence, which is NOT definitely proven with scientific evidence.   There is evidence to SUGGEST a health benefit, but there is no scientific evidence.  An example is “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.”  They are suggesting that this could be true, but they can’t prove it.
  3. Amazingly enough, a company can claim a health benefit though no scientific or supportive evidence exists. An example is “may boost your immune system” however they MUST add a disclaimer to the label that states that the FDA has not evaluated this claim.

No labels can make claims of diagnosis, cures, treatment, or disease prevention.  If you find food or drinks that make wild claims of curing or treating a disease or symptom (or making you lose weight or gain muscle), note that it is NOT TRUE.  These are not valid or allowed claims on food labels.

Test You Knowledge

Allergy Warnings

The FDA requires food manufacturers to list their packages if the product contains any of the eight most common ingredients that cause food allergies. These eight common allergens are as follows: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. The FDA does not require warnings that cross-contamination may occur during packaging; however, most manufacturers include this advisory as a courtesy. For instance, you may notice a label that states, “This product is manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts.” If you have food allergies, it is best to avoid products that may have been contaminated with the allergen.

Ingredient List

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.  For instance, if the first ingredient is sugar in a product, then by weight, that product has more sugar than anything else.  Manufacturers in the USA must list potential allergens in the ingredient list in parenthesis or after the ingredient list stating which allergens a product contains.  Foods with a high amount of ingredients you don’t recognize usually contain a high amount of preservatives and additives and are therefore considered highly processed foods.  Preservatives and additives are added to the food to extend shelf life and improve the texture, color, or other food properties.  Generally, the more processed food is, the fewer nutrients it offers, so choose foods with recognizable ingredients as often as possible.

Who to Trust for Nutrition Information

Everyone seems to be sharing a new diet or meal plan these days to help you get fit fast and drop weight easily. Which of these diets have you heard of?

  • Keto
  • Juice your meals
  • Avoid gluten
  • Don’t eat any fruit

How do you decide if a diet plan is dangerous to your health or not?  Ask a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), a healthcare professional with the knowledge and credentials to provide health and wellness direction.  Most RDNs specialize in areas such as weight loss, sports nutrition, diabetes, food allergies, and more. RDNs apply nutritional science, using evidence-based best practices, to help people nourish their bodies and improve their lives. Becoming a registered dietitian requires a Master’s degree in dietetics, including biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, nutrition, and food-service management. RDNs must complete a dietetic internship along with over 900 supervised hours and pass a national exam. Conversely, the term “nutritionist” is not regulated, and anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.  Because the term is unregulated, a nutritionist may have anything from a 2-week certificate ‘earned’ on the internet to a Master’s Degree.  Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are recognized as medical professionals; nutritionists are NOT.

When not talking with an RDN, how do you know what to believe?  In this age, where a world of information is just a click away, it is easily misled. Reliable nutritional news will be based upon solid scientific evidence, supported by multiple studies, and published in peer-reviewed journals. Be sure the website you use for information comes from a credible and trustworthy source.  Here are some reputable organizations and websites from which you can obtain valid nutrition information:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Evaluating nutrition information in the Media

When you come across an article or advertisement that reads: “Boost your metabolism by drinking coffee with butter every day,” should you believe it or not?  When reading nutrition-related claims, articles, websites, or advertisements, always remember that one study does not substantiate a fact. One study neither proves nor disproves anything. Readers looking for complex answers to nutritional dilemmas can quickly misconstrue such statements and be led down a path of misinformation. When reading such news, ask yourself, “Is this making sense?” Suppose a headline professes a new remedy for a nutrition-related topic. In that case, it may well be a research-supported piece of news. Still, more often than not, it is a sensational story designed to catch the attention of an unsuspecting consumer and persuade him or her to purchase a product.

Ask yourself the following questions when you read nutrition information.

  1. The scientific study under discussion should be published in a peer-reviewed journal, such as the Journal of Nutrition. Peer-reviewed articles deliver a broad perspective and are inclusive of many studies’ findings on the same subject. Studies that come from less trustworthy sources (such as non-peer-reviewed journals or websites) are not formally published.
  2. Track down the original journal article to see if it supports the conclusions drawn in the news report.
  3. The report should disclose the methods used by the researcher(s). Did the study last for three or thirty weeks? Were there ten or one hundred participants? What did the participants actually do? Did the researcher(s) observe the results themselves, or did they rely on program participants’ self-reports?
  4. Who were the subjects of this study? Humans or animals? Men or women? Would you fit into the program participant groups based on your age, sex, and weight?
  5. Credible reports often disseminate new findings in the context of previous research. A single study on its own gives you minimal information, but if a body of literature supports a finding, it adds to credibility.
  6. Who wrote the article? Is he or she a credentialed expert like a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or a medical doctor (MD)? What experience does he or she have with this topic?

Learning Objectives

  • Define the 3 types of macronutrients and the 2 types of micronutrients. (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Identify where you can obtain information about the micronutrient and macronutrient content of food? (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Understand and be able to utilize information on food labels. (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Discuss the difference in the types of health claims. (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Discuss the educational differences between a “nutritionist” and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Identify credible nutrition information. (MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Understand and be able to use the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (MCCCD Competency 4)



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Nutrition Essentials Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Green and Kelli Shallal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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