Lifestyle | Health & Wellness

How to Read a FDA Nutrition Facts Label

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Nutrition facts labels are required in most countries on most packaged foods. This article is focused on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) governed label.

Learn How to Read A Nutrition Facts Label

People use the labels for various reasons, whether it is to track calories or fat, or whether it is to help with specific health conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Reading a FDA Label In General & for FODMAPs

Theses can be somewhat helpful in understanding FODMAPs, if you know what to look for, which this article addresses. If you are not following the low FODMAP diet, this article will still be enlightening.

Let’s learn How to Read a FDA Nutrition Facts Label!

The FDA Nutrition Facts Label & Serving Sizes

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what the serving sizes presented on the label are in general, which we will cover, and we will also discuss how the label relates to FODMAPs.

Please make sure to also read our companion articles, What Is A Low FODMAP Serving Size? and How To Read A Low FODMAP Certified Food Product Label.

 It will help you immensely if you use these articles together for the most complete picture. We cannot stress this enough.

2016 Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label

Manufacturers have largely switched over to a label reflecting the 2016 changes. End date for total compliance for product manufacturers was January 1, 2021.

NEW FDA Nutrition Facts Label

Here is information on the most recent updates:

“Serving Sizes”, on the label as seen above (pre-2016), have been updated with data from the most recent self-reported consumption data.

(Please see What Is A Low FODMAP Serving Size? for more information as to why these amounts are probably not what you think they are).

It is vital to understand that “Serving Sizes” are NOT meant to tell you how much to eat for health reasons or otherwise. They are based on self-reported consumption data, or RACCs (Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed per Eating Occasion).

By the way, the average consumer will never see the term RACC; we just want you to understand what they are and how they are derived.

Furthermore, in reference to RACCs, the FDA tells manufacturers that when preparing their “serving size” label information that the RACC research and reporting represents “guidances”, but “not requirements”.

When you look at a bottle of commercially prepared marinade, for instance, the “serving size” will state 1 tablespoon. This is the RACC, which we frankly find paltry and does not make much sense when it comes to how we actually cook and eat.

But the FDA has to have some consistency so that the consumer can contrast and compare the same item from two different brands for instance.

It is vital to understand that “Serving Sizes” are NOT meant to tell you how much to eat for health reasons or otherwise. They are based on self-reported consumption data, or RACCs (Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed per Eating Occasion).

The Present Labels Have New Info

FDA dual column Nutrition Facts Label

Here are some of the changes you will see on the new labels now in use (there are many more):

  • Modifications and changes of serving sizes in certain product categories were made in response to manufacturer requests.
  • Calories and servings per container will be in larger print.
  • Some packages may show a label with two columns: one column lists the amount of calories and nutrients per one serving and the second column lists nutritional information for the entire package.
  • A product that is packaged and sold individually and contains less than 2 servings (200% of the RACC) will now to be labeled as a single serving. (Note: Previously packages that contained less than 2 servings could list “About 2 Servings”. Under the new rules, it must be listed as 1 serving per container.
  • This means that, for carbonated beverages, both a 12 oz and a 20 oz bottle of soda should be labeled as 1 serving. (However, a 24 oz bottle would require a dual column label because it is 200% of the 12 fl oz. RACC.)
  • Dual column recommendations are not required for several categories, such as products that require further preparation, like pancake mix, or cereal, which is usually served with milk.
  • A new category of “Added Sugars” is now listed under “Total Sugars.”
  • “Calories From Fat” has been removed because the most current research has determined that the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Vitamin D and Potassium will now be listed.
  • Vitamins A and C are no longer required, but may be included voluntarily.
  • Daily values for Sodium, Dietary Fiber and Vitamin D have been updated based on the research that was used to develop the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

How Does The FDA Nutrition Facts Label Relate to FODMAPs?

None of this FDA information, however, relates to FODMAP content specifically.

FODMAP content is determined through specific laboratory testing for FODMAPs. 

Logos for low FODMAP Certification programs; Monash and FODMAP Friendly

Both Monash University and FODMAP Friendly test raw ingredients as well as prepared products for FODMAP content, for which they have product certification programs. Both Monash and FODMAP Friendly also have smartphone apps that we suggest that you download, which contain all of this information.

If you see either of the logos shown above on a food product, you have assurance that the food is low FODMAP per the serving size that is recommended.

See our article, How To Read A Low FODMAP Certified Food Product Label for more complete information.

Using The FDA Nutrition Facts Label to Help Determine FODMAPs

FODMAPs are carbohydrates.

For the purposes of the low FODMAP diet, the Carbohydrates listings on the FDA Nutrient Facts Label can offer some helpful information.

The Total Carbohydrate listing on the label encompasses both Dietary Fiber and Total Sugars, and now Total Sugars is also broken down to list Added Sugars as a separate listing.

This can help you understand if sugars are naturally present in the ingredients and/or if sugars have been added to the product.

An example of this could be fruit juice. Pure 100% orange juice will contain sugars because oranges naturally contain sugar, but there will be no Added Sugars.

On the other hand, if you look at the label of cranberry juice “beverage” you will see that there are usually Added Sugars. Then, if you check the Ingredient section of the product label you will be able to see the type of sugar that was added, which could be cane sugar, which is low FODMAP, or could be high fructose corn syrup, which is high FODMAP.

Using The FDA Nutrition Facts Label To Assess FODMAPs In Dairy Products

Lactose, sometimes referred to as milk sugar, is a double sugar (hence the “di-“ for disaccharide), represented by the “D” in FODMAP. The two monosaccharides that make up lactose are galactose and glucose.

If either the Sugars or Carbohydrates on the label is 1 gram or less per serving, we can make the assumption that the dairy product is low FODMAP since Monash University’s lactose cut-off is 1 gram per serving.

You must pay attention to the serving size.

Sugars in dairy products (yogurt, milk, ice cream, cheeses, etc.) can come from the lactose inherently present in the item, or from Added Sugars.

The new Added Sugars line represents sugars added to the product, such as cane sugar to ice cream, and does not include the sugar within the present lactose.

This makes it easier for the consumer to determine lactose content in certain dairy products because now that the naturally present sugars (like the lactose in dairy), and the added sugars which are added to the product “recipe” by the manufacturer are separate, it will be easier to see which sugars are coming from any lactose and therefore represent FODMAP content.

Read all about “LACTOSE, DAIRY and the LOW FODMAP DIET” here

For more information on how the bacteria present in fermented products such as yogurt and kefir affect FODMAP content, please refer to the article Is Greek Yogurt Low FODMAP, which was co-written by our Success Team RD Vanessa Cobarrubia and our article How Fermentation Affects the FODMAP Content in Sourdough Bread and Dairy Foods

Possible Limitations of the FDA Nutritional Panel

In 2018 an oft-cited study was published titled Evaluation of FODMAP Carbohydrates Content in Selected Foods in the United States. The researchers purchased foods at Kroger’s, selecting foods that “were felt to be potential candidates for usage as low FODMAP foods in a pediatric clinical trial.” They chose a mixture of fruits, vegetables, beverages, dairy products, snacks (such as pretzels, potato chips and fries), grains and cereals, peanut butter and condiments.

We encourage you to read the entire study, the Abstract of which is presented below:

“We analyzed the fermentable oligosaccharide, disaccharide, monosaccharide, and polyols (FODMAP) content of several foods potentially low in FODMAP which are commonly consumed by children. We determined that several processed foods (eg, gluten free baked products) had unlabeled FODMAP content. Determining FODMAP content within foods distributed in the United States may support educational and dietary interventions.”

In the final paragraph of the study, the researchers state:

“In conclusion, unlabeled high FODMAP content may be found in American foods. Based on current nutrition labeling requirements, this content may not be readily apparent. Further analysis of food distributed in the US (and other cultural foods) may be helpful with the implementation of a low FODMAP diet.”

Please note what we have bolded above. What this means is that due to the limitations of the Nutrition Facts Panel and the FDA’s requirements for ingredient lists, we may indeed not be made aware of FODMAP content in certain foods.

It is also why bar scanner apps can lead to faulty assumptions about FODMAP content of prepared foods.

As always, we have to use a variety of tools to make smart decisions for the foods we choose to consume. The Monash and FODMAP Friendly smartphone apps go a long way to aiding us in our low FODMAP choices. Ultimately, unless a food has gone through lab-testing, we do not know for sure what its FODMAP content is (unless it is a pure fat or protein).

The Takeaway

If all of this feels a bit confusing, we understand. This is why working with a Registered Dietitian can help you navigate your personal approach to the low FODMAP diet and manage your unique IBS triggers.

The more practice you get reading food labels, the better you can become in using them as a tool to plan your healthy, balanced diet.

And remember…Please make sure to also read our companion articles, What Is A Low FODMAP Serving Size? and How To Read A Low FODMAP Certified Food Product Label.

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