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Chapter: Nutrition and Diet Therapy: Planning a Healthy Diet

Food Labeling

As a result of the passage by Congress of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990, nutrition labeling regulations became mandatory in May 1994 for nearly all processed foods.



As a result of the passage by Congress of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990, nutrition labeling regulations became mandatory in May 1994 for nearly all processed foods. The primary objective of the changes was to ensure that labels would be on most foods and would provide consistent nutrition infor-mation. The resulting food labels provide the consumer with more information on the nutrient contents of foods and how those nutrients affect health than former labels provided. Health claims allowed on labels are limited and set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Serving sizes are determined by the FDA and not by the individual food processor. Descriptive terms used for foods are standardized. For example, “low fat” means that each serving contains 3 grams of fat or less.


Current Label


The nutrition label has a formatted space called Nutrition Facts (Figure 2-2) that includes required and optional information.


The items, with amounts per serving, that must be included on the food label are the following:


Total calories

Calories from fat

Total fat

Saturated fat

Trans fat



Total carbohydrates

Dietary fiber



Vitamin A

Vitamin C




The food processor can voluntarily include additional information on food products. If a health claim is made about the food or if the food is enriched or fortified with an optional nutrient, then nutrition information about that nutrient becomes required. The standardized serving size is based on amounts of the specific food commonly eaten, and it is given in both English and metric measurements (Table 2-11).


Daily values on the label give the consumer the percentage per servingof each nutritional item listed, based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. For exam-ple, total fat on Figure 2-2 shows 3 grams, which represents 5% of the amount of fat someone on a 2,000-calorie diet should have. The label also shows the maximum amount of a nutrient that should be eaten (for example, fat) orthe minimum requirement for specified nutrients (for example, carbohydrates) based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories and another based on 2,500 calories.

The items included here are the amounts of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, and fiber. In addition, the label lists the calories per gram for fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.


Health Claims


Because diet has been implicated as a factor in heart disease, stroke, birth defects, and cancer, the following health claims linking a nutrient to a health-related condition are allowed on labels. They are intended to help consumers both choose foods that are the most healthful for them and avoid being deceived by false advertisements on the label. The allowed claims are for the relationship between the following:


Calcium andosteoporosis


Sodium andhypertension


Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and grains containing dietary fiber and coronary heart disease


Diets low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables containing dietary fiber and the antioxidants, and vitamins A and C and cancer


Diets low in fat and high in fiber-containing grains, fruits, and vegetables and cancer


Folic acid andneural tube defects


Soy and reduced risk of cardiac heart disease


Two additional criteria must also be met:

1.    A food whose label makes a health claim must be a naturally good source (containing at least 10% of the daily value) of at least one of the following nutrients: protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, or fiber.

2.   Health claims cannot be made for a food if a standard servingcontains more than 20% of the daily value for total fat, saturatedfat, cholesterol, or sodium.


The FDA has also standardized descriptors (terms used by manufacturers todescribe products) on food labels to help the consumer select the most appropriate and healthful foods. The following are examples:

Low caloriemeans 40 calories or less per serving.

Calorie freemeans less than 5 calories per serving. 

Low fat means a food has no more than 3 grams of fat per serving or per 100 grams of the food.

Fat free means a food contains less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving.

Low saturated fat means 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving.

Low cholesterol means 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving.

Cholesterol free means less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving.

No added sugar means that no sugar or sweeteners of any kind have been added at any time during the preparation and packaging. When such a term is used, the package must also state that it is not low calorie or calorie reduced (unless it actually is).

Low sodium means less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.

Very low sodium means less than 35 mg of sodium per serving.


Obviously, the information on food labels is useful to all consumers and especially to those who must select foods for therapeutic diets. Health care professionals should become thoroughly knowledgeable about the labeling law. On request, many food manufacturers will provide the consumer with ad-ditional detailed information about their products.


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