Reading Food Labels: A Guide for Older Adults

Reading Food Labels For Seniors

Opting for nutritious food options can improve your overall well-being and maintain your physical activity. Additionally, it can minimize your chances of encountering health issues that often arise in the elderly population.

The Nutrition Facts label, located on packaged foods and drinks, is a resource provided by the FDA to guide you towards selecting foods that can have beneficial impacts on your health and overall wellness.

However, these labels can be confusing and difficult to understand, especially for older adults who may have yet to grow up with this information readily available. 

This guide will break down how to read food labels and provide helpful tips and information for older adults seeking healthy and informed food choices.

Why Older Adults Should Pay Attention to Food Labels

Older adults can improve their diet beyond a balanced and nutritious one by being mindful of the specific ingredients in their food. The best way to do this is to examine the ingredient list and nutrition facts on the food label. 

Food manufacturers may use misleading terms such as “natural,” “diet,” or “organic” to promote their products as healthy, but examining the actual ingredients is the only way to ensure the food is good for the body. Paying attention to the ingredients can also help seniors follow dietary restrictions and avoid allergens or other intolerances.

Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label

Each product’s nutrition facts label includes various sections tailored to that product. Positioned at the bottom of every nutrition label is a footnote that clarifies the definition of percent daily value and the daily calorie intake on which it is based.

1. Serving Information

Beneath the “Nutrition Facts” section on the label, you can find the serving information. This section details the number of servings and the serving size contained in the package. Typically, the serving size is expressed in cups or pieces, followed by grams (g) or milliliters (ml) in parentheses, indicating the quantity of food or drink in a single serving. 

It’s important to note that the serving size reflects the typical amount of food or drink consumed in a sitting, not the recommended quantity. Furthermore, all other nutritional information mentioned below pertains to one serving only. 

For instance, if the serving information indicates 2 servings per container, with a serving size of 1 cup (227g), consuming 1 cup equals one serving or half of the package. But if you consume 2 cups, that amounts to 2 servings or the entire package, which would mean doubling the calories and nutrients mentioned on the label.

2. Calories

The label also displays the number of calories per serving below the serving information. For instance, a product with 2 servings per container, 1 cup serving size, and 200 calories per serving would provide 400 calories for the entire package (2 cups). Calories represent the amount of energy released by the food and beverages consumed. 

The more calories a food has, the more energy the body receives. However, more calories are only sometimes beneficial and may not keep you feeling full. If you consume more calories than required, the extra calories are transformed into fat by the body. This is critical, particularly when purchasing low-fat or fat-free food items.

3. Nutrients

The section on nutrients constitutes the majority of the food label, providing a list of nutrients that may be beneficial in determining your dietary needs. Although listed as nutrients, only some of the items mentioned in this section are necessarily good for you. Substances like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar are associated with negative health outcomes. 

Overconsumption of these components may lead to inflammation and increase the likelihood of various illnesses, such as high blood pressure. However, other nutrients mentioned on the label must often be added to American diets. These include dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. 

Consuming enough dietary fiber has numerous health advantages, such as 

  • reducing blood sugar and cholesterol levels, 
  • increasing bowel movement frequency, 
  • and lowering overall calorie intake. 

Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium also offer various benefits, including reducing the risk of osteoporosis, anemia, and hypertension.

4. Percent Daily Value

The nutrient percentages, known as percent daily value (%DV), are beside the nutrient list. The %DV indicates how much of a nutrient is in one serving and contributes to your daily intake. 

For instance, if a product has a total fat %DV of 12%, the fat in one serving is 12% of the total fat you should consume daily based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The %DV can determine if a food or beverage has high or low nutrients. 

Typically, a %DV of 5 or less is considered low, while a %DV of 20 or more is considered high. The FDA recommends selecting foods with a high %DV of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium and a low %DV of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. This could include low-fat dairy products, whole-grain bread, beans, and seafood.

Health Claims And Other Label Claims: What are they?

Apart from the four common sections that can be seen in nutrition facts labels, you’ll also find certain label claims that provide additional useful information about the product.

There are three types of claims that can be used on food and dietary supplement labels, as defined by statute and/or FDA regulations: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims.

1. Health Claims

Health claims found on food labels are statements that have undergone evaluation by the FDA and are approved for use on food products to indicate that a particular food or ingredient may have the potential to lower the risk of a disease or health-related condition.

The FDA employs three approaches to oversee and determine health claims that may be used on labels or in labeling for conventional foods or dietary supplements. These include:

  1. Under the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), the FDA can issue regulations permitting health claims for foods and dietary supplements after evaluating scientific evidence from petitions or on its own initiative.
  1. Health claims based on authoritative statements from the National Academy of Sciences or U.S. government scientific bodies can be used after 120 days of submitting a health claim notification under the 1997 Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA), unless it’s deemed incomplete by the FDA.
  1. FDA reviews petitions for qualified health claims when scientific evidence falls short of regulatory requirements, as outlined in their guidance on “Interim Procedures for Qualified Health Claims in the Labeling of Conventional Human Food and Human Dietary Supplements.

A “health claim” is defined by two key components: 

(1) a substance, such as a food, food component, or dietary ingredient, and 

(2) a disease or health-related condition. 

A statement that lacks either of these components does not meet the regulatory definition of a health claim.

Here are examples of health claims that may appear on certain foods:

  • Consuming a healthy diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruit may potentially lower the risk of certain types of cancer.
  • Incorporating a healthy diet that is low in saturated and trans fat may potentially reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Following a healthy diet that includes foods low in sodium and high in potassium may potentially lower the risk of high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet that provides adequate calcium and vitamin D, along with regular physical activity, may potentially promote strong bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Consumption of plant sterols may potentially assist in lowering cholesterol levels.

2. Nutrient Claims

Nutrient content claims convey the amount of a nutrient in a product using terms like “free,” “high,” and “low,” or by comparing it to another food using terms like “more,” “reduced,” and “lite.” 

An accurate statement with a specific quantity (e.g200 mg of sodium) that does not characterize the nutrient level is acceptable. 

However, a statement like “only 200 mg of sodium” implies that the sodium level is low, and thus the food must meet the criteria for a “low” nutrient content claim or carry a disclosure stating that it does not qualify for the claim (e.g., “not a low sodium food”).

Here are some common examples of nutritional claims you can find on food packing, according to Mayo Clinic:

  1. Calorie-free
  • Contains fewer than 5 calories
  1. Fat-free or sugar-free
  • Contains less than 0.5 grams of fat or sugar
  1. Gluten-free, no gluten, free of gluten or without gluten
  • Contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten
  1. Good source of
  • Provides at least 10% of the daily value of a specific vitamin or nutrient
  1. Healthy
  • Low in fat
  • Low in saturated fat
  • Contains less than 480 milligrams of sodium
  • Contains less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol
  • Provides at least 10% of the daily value of vitamins A, C, and D; iron; protein; calcium; fiber; or potassium
  • Food does not need to be low in total fat but has a fat profile mainly composed of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
  1. High fiber
  • Contains 5 or more grams of fiber
  1. High in
  • Provides 20% or more of the daily value of a specified nutrient
  1. Light or lite
  • Contains one-third fewer calories than the usual food
  • Contains half the fat of the usual food
  1. Low calorie
  • Contains fewer than 40 calories
  1. Low cholesterol
  • Contains less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol
  • Contains 2 grams or less of saturated fat
  1. Low sodium
  • Contains less than 140 milligrams of sodium
  1. Natural
  • Contains no added artificial or synthetic ingredients, including color additives
  1. Organic
  • Ingredients are produced without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, farmed to reduce pollution, and provide safe and healthy livestock habitats
  • At least 95% of ingredients are organic
  • Label may include USDA organic seal or organic claim
  1. Reduced
  • Contains less than 25% of the specified nutrient or calories compared to the usual product

3. Structure/Function Claims

Structure/function claims refer to statements that describe how a nutrient or dietary ingredient is intended to affect the normal structure or function of the human body, such as “calcium builds strong bones.” 

These claims may also explain the mechanism by which the nutrient or dietary ingredient maintains the structure or function, such as “fiber maintains bowel regularity” or “antioxidants support immune health.”

Next time you shop for groceries, pay attention to the claims on food and beverage packaging. Understanding their true meaning can help you make healthier food choices.

Using Nutrition Facts Labels To Meet Your Needs

The nutrients in your food facilitate the proper functioning of your body. Overconsumption or underconsumption of certain nutrients can heighten your susceptibility to chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Older adults require specific nutrients in their diet compared to other age groups. The Nutrition Facts label can assist in tracking the intake of various nutrients.

When reviewing food labels, here’s what you should look for;

  • Look for packaged foods higher in dietary fiber, Vitamin D, calcium, and potassium.
  • Find packaged foods with lower saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. 

Here’s a table showing how much of each nutrient you need daily.

NutrientDaily Value
Dietary fiber28 grams (g) per day
Calcium1,300 milligrams (mg) per day
Vitamin D20 micrograms (mcg) per day
Potassium4,700 mg per day
Saturated fatless than 20 g per day
Sodiumless than 2,300 mg per day
Added sugarsless than 50 g per day

Nutrition Facts Label: A Guide To Make Healthy Choices

1. Verify the portions.

Typically, the nutritional data on the packaging pertains to a single serving of the food item. To make a fair assessment of calories and nutrients among different foods, ensure that you review the serving size. Remember that multiple servings may exist in a single food item or drink.

2. Understand Your Caloric Requirements.

As a general rule of thumb, 2,000 calories per day is often recommended for nutrition purposes. Nevertheless, your individual caloric needs may be either greater or lower, depending on several factors, including your age, gender, height, weight, and level of physical activity. Speaking with your healthcare provider about your nutritional requirements would be best, especially as you grow older.

To determine your optimal calorie range, consider visiting and consulting your healthcare provider.

3. Use % Daily Value as a Guide.

Utilize the % Daily Value to make informed choices while selecting foods. By referring to the %DV, you can determine which food options are healthier.

Older adults should prioritize foods with a higher %DV of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. At the same time, they should avoid foods with a higher %DV of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Consult your healthcare provider to identify the nutrients that require careful monitoring for your overall well-being.


By learning to read food labels, older adults can take control of their diets and make choices supporting their health and well-being. Whether you’re looking to manage a chronic condition or maintain a healthy lifestyle, understanding the information on nutrition labels can help you make informed choices and ensure that you get the nutrients your body needs. 

With the tips and guidance provided in this guide, you can confidently navigate the often-confusing world of food labels and make choices that support your overall health and wellness.

To further guide you in navigating the unique nutritional requirements of your golden years you may also visit our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life