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Comprehending Food Labels

How Percent Daily Value Is Calculated
The Percent Daily Values are calculated using the reference values in the footnote of each food label. These values are the same on every food label. The daily reference values listed are calculated based on both a 2,000- and a 2,500-calorie diet. The daily values that are actually listed on the label use the Daily Reference Intake values for the 2,000-calorie diet.

Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to follow this advice? No, the Percent Daily Value does the math for you. It helps you to interpret what the amounts mean (grams and milligrams) by placing them all on the same type of scale (0-100 Percent Daily Value). This helps you tell high from low and understand which nutrients may be contributing a lot or a little to your daily recommended allowance.

The daily value amount of the nutrient, per serving, is calculated by dividing the reference value to see how much of your nutrient allotment is used up for the day. The following example illustrates how to calculate daily value for a food containing 3 grams of fat per serving:

  1. The sample label lists 3 grams of fat per serving.
  2. The reference value for fat, found in the footnote of the label, is 65 grams per day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).
  3. Divide 3 grams by 65 grams to equal 0.046 or 4.6 percent. Rounded up, this is 5 percent. If you look at the sample label, 5 percent is the Percent Daily Value for fat.
  4. This means that when you eat a serving of this product, it is using up 5 percent of the fat you are allowed for a day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, or 5 percent of the 65 grams of fat. In other words, you have 95 percent of your fat allowance left for the day.
Expressing nutrients as a percentage of the Daily Values is intended to help prevent misinterpretations that can arise with quantitative values. For example, a food that contains 150 mg of sodium could seem high in sodium just because the number 150 seems relatively large. In actuality, however, 150 mg is only about 6 percent of the daily value for sodium, which is 2,400 mg per day. On the other hand, a food with 5 grams of saturated fat could be construed as being low in that nutrient; however, that food would provide 25 percent of the total daily value for saturated fat (20 g).

Sugar and Protein
Sugars and protein do not have a Percent Daily Value on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Sugar has no daily reference value because no recommendations have been made for the total amount of sugars to eat in a day. The sugar on the label includes naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit and dairy products, as well as added sugars, such as those in soft drinks and baked goods. Check the ingredient list to find more information on added sugars.

You will not always see a Percent Daily Value for protein. It is only required if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein," or if the food is specifically meant for use by infants and children under four years old. The government has decided that current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults or for children over age four. Protein needs are more individualized and should really be based on an individual's weight and physical activity.

Fact: If the Percent Daily Value of protein is required, it is calculated as 10 percent of total calorie intake. On a 2,000-calorie diet, this would equal 50 grams of protein. The minimum amount of protein recommended for all calorie levels is 46 grams.

Quick Guide to Percent Daily Values
To help you quickly decide whether a food is high or low in a nutrient, use this general guide:

  • Low: The food contains 5 percent or less of the daily value for a particular nutrient in a serving.
  • Good source: One serving of a food contains 10 to 19 percent of the daily value for a particular nutrient.
  • High: The food contains 20 percent or more of the daily value for a particular nutrient in a serving.
  • More: A serving of food, altered or not, contains a nutrient that is at least 10 percent of the daily value more than the reference food. The 10 percent of daily value also applies to claims of "fortified," "enriched," "added," "extra," and "plus"; but in those cases, the food must be altered.
This means that 5 percent or less of a daily value would be considered low for all nutrients that you want to limit, such as fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. This also means that 20 percent or more of the daily value would be considered high for those nutrients that you want to consume in greater amounts, such as fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Footnote to the Food Label
The asterisk used after the heading "Percent Daily Value" refers to the footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label. This section tells you that Percent Daily Values are based on recommendations for a 2,000-calorie diet and that your daily values may be higher or lower, depending on your calorie needs. This statement is required on all food labels. The remaining information in the full footnote, including the daily reference values for 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets, as well as the calories per gram of the three macronutrients, may not be on the package if the label is small. When the full footnote does appear on a label, it will always be exactly the same. It doesn't change from product to product because it shows dietary advice for all Americans, not information about a specific food product.

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Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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