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Understanding Food Labels: Where it all started

The “Nutrition Facts” label is the go-to place on a food package for most of the nutritional information you need to plan a healthful diet.  But just like cell phones and GPS and other items we use every day, it hasn’t always been there.  So who created the Nutrition Facts label, what information does it provide, and what information does it lack?

The Nutrition Facts label was mandated for most food products under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990.  The law gives the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require nutrition labeling of foods regulated by the agency.  It also requires that nutrition claims, such as high fiber and low fat, meets FDA regulations.

Almost every food must bear the Nutrition Facts label and the information presented must be consistent.  However, there are some exceptions to the rules.

  • Foods that contribute very few nutrients, such as plain coffee, tea, and spices are not required to provide nutritional information.
  • Foods produced by small businesses or foods produced and sold in the same establishment do not carry the label.
  • Very small packages (less than 12 square inches in total surface area) may instead provide contact information on where to find the Nutrition Facts.

Every food label must prominently display and express the following information in ordinary words:

  • The common or usual name of the product
  • The name and address of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor
  • The net contents in terms of weight, measure or count
  • The ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight
  • The serving size and number of servings per container
  • The quantities of these specific nutrients:  calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat (as of 2006), cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, Calcium and iron.

Labels must also give information about how certain nutrients fit into an overall dietary plan, such as less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol is recommended for someone consuming a 2,000 calorie diet.

For more on the requirements of the Nutrition Facts label, visit for an exhaustive list of rules and regulations.

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