Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label: Do You Know What You're Eating?

Food nutrition label How much calcium is in macaroni and cheese? Which brand of macaroni and cheese has the least fat? The best way to learn this and more is to read the Nutrition Facts label found on all food packages. The information on the label can help you make better choices about what you eat.

Breaking It Down

Let’s look at a sample label for macaroni and cheese to find out what is inside.

  • Packaged vs Prepared: The label below says this food has 250 as calories as packaged and 350 calories as prepared. The packaged value tells you how many calories in the food before you cook it. Prepared values include ingredients needed to cook a food. For this mac and cheese, the prepared values include the exact amount of milk and butter (or margarine) the directions on the package tell you to use.
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 70 g (about 1/3 of box) (Makes about 1 cup)
Servings Per Container: 3
Amount Per Serving About 2.5 oz. as packaged (1/3 box)
Calories 250 packaged/ 350 prepared         
Calories from Fat 25 (packaged)/110 (prepared) % Daily Value* packaged /prepared
Total Fat 3 g 5% / 20%
Saturated Fat 1.5 g 8% / 23%
Trans Fat 0 g  
Cholesterol 10 mg 3% / 3%
Sodium 570 mg 24% / 30%
Total Carbohydrate 47 g 16% / 16%
Dietary Fiber 2 g 8% / 8%
Sugars 6 g  
Protein 9 g   10% / 11%
Vitamin A 0% / 15%
Vitamin C 0% / 0%
Calcium 10% / 15%
Iron 10% / 10%

*Amount in Box margarine with 0g Trans Fat and 2% Reduced Fat Milk preparation contains 13g total fat (4.5g sat fat, 0g trans fat), 720mg sodium, 10g total carbohydrate (2g dietary fiber, 7g sugars), and 10g protein.

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie need
  Calories 2,000 2,500
Total Fat Less than 65 g 80 g
Saturated Fat Less than 20 g 25 g
Cholesterol Less than 300 mg 300 mg
Sodium Less than 2,400 mg 2,400 mg
Total Carbohydrate   300 g 375 g
Dietary Fiber   25 g 30 g
Protein   50 g 65 g

Serving Size

Serving Size: 70 g about 1/3 of box
Servings Per Container: almost 3

The nutrient information on the label is based on a set amount of food. This amount is called the serving size. The serving size can be different from how much you actually eat. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals 1/3 of the box. If you ate the entire package, you would eat nearly 3 times the amount of the nutrients listed on the label.

Calories and Calories From Fat

Amount Per Serving
Calories 250         Calories from Fat 25

Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from food. Calories come from three sources: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. There are 250 calories in this food. 25 of the calories in one serving come from fat.

Important Nutrients

The top half of the nutrition label lists nutrients that can strongly affect your health. They can be divided into 2 groups: those to limit and those to get enough of.

Nutrients to Limit

Total Fat 3 g 5%
    Saturated Fat 1.5 g 8%
Trans Fat 0 g  
Cholesterol 10 mg 3%
Sodium 570 mg 24%

Sodium 570mg 24% Too much of these can be bad for your health. Too much fat, cholesterol, or sodium may raise your risk of health problems like heart disease, some kinds of cancer, and high blood pressure.

Saturated fat and trans fat are very unhealthy. Unsaturated fats are a healthier type of fat. They do not have to be listed on a label. Most of the fat you eat should be unsaturated.

Eating too many calories in general can lead to overweight and obesity. Being overweight is a risk factor for many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis.

Nutrients to Get Enough of

Dietary Fiber 2 g 8%
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 10%
Iron 10%

These are a few of the nutrients that are beneficial to our health. Many Americans may not get enough. These include vitamins A and C, the minerals calcium and iron, and fiber. Calcium can help lower the risk of having weal or brittle bones ( osteoporosis), while vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Fiber helps to keep you regular. It may also to help lower the risk of some chronic diseases.

Total Carbohydrate

Here, you can find the total grams of carbohydrate in the product. One gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories. Total carbohydrate includes dietary fiber and sugars. These and as other forms of carbohydrate are listed on the label.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The percent daily values (%DV) are listed in the right-hand column of the Nutrition Facts label. These tell you whether the nutrients in a serving of food add a little or a lot to your total daily nutrient intake. 5% or less is "a little" and 20% or more is "a lot."

What Is My Daily Value?

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  Calories 2,000 2,500
Total Fat Less than 65 g 80 g
Saturated Fat Less than 20 g 25 g
Cholesterol Less than 300 mg 300 mg
Sodium Less than 2,400 mg 2,400 mg
Total Carbohydrate   300 g 375 g
Dietary Fiber   25 g 30 g

The percent daily values are based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. They are listed in a table below the Nutrition Facts label. The information in this table is the same on all food products. (Small food products may not have this table if there is not enough room for it). These values are based on expert dietary advice about some of the nutrients you should get each day.

The label can help you figure out how much of these nutrients you should get each day. For example, if you have a 2,000 calorie goal you should eat less than 65 grams of total fat per day. You should eat as little saturated fat as possible. Focus on eating healthier fats. Too much cholesterol and sodium are both harmful to your health. The recommended amounts of cholesterol and sodium are the same for both the 2000 and 2500 calorie diets.

The daily values are a good guide. For example, just knowing that one serving of macaroni and cheese contains 3 grams of fat is not very helpful. But to know that this 3 grams accounts for 5% of the total amount you should have in a day is more useful.

Comparing Percent Daily Values

The percent daily value makes it easy for you to compare the nutrient contents of different brands of the same kinds of foods. Check the serving size first to make sure that it is the same. This can help you choose the food with the lower percentage of fat or the higher percentage of calcium, for example.


Sugars and Protein

There are no daily values for simple sugars and proteins.

  % Daily Value*
Sugars 7 g  
Protein 9 g  

There is no DV for simple sugar because there is no specific recommendation how much sugar we should eat each day. The amount of sugar listed here includes both natural sugars (like those in fruits and dairy products), as well as sugars added during processing. Check the ingredient list to figure out which type of sugars are in a food.

Usually, there is no DV given for protein. This is because most American adults and children over the age of four get plenty of protein in their daily diet. However, if a food package makes a specific claim about protein, like "high in protein," it must list the %DV. Each gram of protein provides four calories.



Calcium 10%

The daily value for calcium is 1,000 (milligrams) mg per day. To figure out the exact amount of calcium in a product, you will need to do a little math. Multiply the %DV by 10. If a container of yogurt contains 30% DV; multiply this by 10, which will give you the value of 300 mg.

The daily value here is 1,000 mg, which is the recommendation for people ages 19-50. However, pre-teens and teens (ages 9-18) need 1,300 mg per day, or 130% DV. People age 51 and older need 1,200 mg each day, or 120% DV.


Choose My Plate—Department of Agriculture

Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada


Calcium. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional. Accessed November 15, 2020.

How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm. Accessed November 15, 2020.

Hypertension. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Accessed November 15, 2020.

Nutrition facts label. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/images/NutritionFactsLabel.pdf. Accessed November 15, 2020.

Kraft dinners—macaroni and cheese dinner—original flavor. Kraft Mac and Cheese website. Available at: http://www.kraftmacandcheese.com/products/bluebox/original-cheese. Accessed November 15, 2020.

Last reviewed November 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board  Last Updated:11/15/2020