In my last lecture notes, I introduced you to the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI). Remember that these are a set of values that informs us how much nutrients we need to be consuming to avoid chronic disease and promote optimum health. These values can be obtained from DRI tables online or in nutrition textbooks. The tables show nutrient values required per day based on gender, pregnancy, lactation and age. However, most people do not consider DRI values when they get up in the morning to look for breakfast. Other practical guidelines are used which I will outline in this lesson. These include food labels, dietary guidelines and food patterns.

Food Labels

Food labels provide us with information that is helpful in making a decision whether to buy the product and how much to eat. By reading the food label the following questions can be answered:

  1. What ingredients make up the product?
  2. What is the proportion of ingredients in the product?
  3. Are there allergens in the product?
  4. What is the serving size?
  5. How many people can be served from a single package?
  6. How much of my calorie needs will this product provide? 
  7. What proportion of my daily nutrient needs does this product supply? 
  8. Are there any unhealthy components in the food that I would like to avoid? 
  9. What type of nutrients does it contain and how much?
  10. Are there any particular health benefits from eating this product? 
  11. Where is the product coming from? 

The nutrition label is a very valuable part of the food label. Note its various components in the image below. The label on the left is the old outdated format. The one on the right is the current FDA-approved format.

SourceFDA Nutrition Label Facts

Note the changes in the new label. You will see that the new label provides more visibility of the serving size and total calories. This is important since overconsumption of calories play a major role in obesity, diabetes and heart diseases; major chronic diseases in the US. Also notice that the new label eliminates “Calories from fat”. This points to the fact that fat is not the only enemy. Overconsumption of any macronutrient, be it carbs, proteins or fats, will result in overweight and obesity. What matters is the total calories rather than the source of the calories.

In addition to the basic information that you may find on a food label, the label may also have claims. These may come in different forms such as health claimsstructure-function claims and nutrient-content claims. Health claims are claims that the product will treat, cure or prevent a disease. These claims are rare on food products since they have to be backed up by substantial research. These can take a long time to get approved. Hence, this type of claim is more commonly used on labels for drugs rather than food. A good example of a health claim on a food product is the “heart healthy” claim made on oatmeal products. Manufacturers are able to make this claim due to large evidence of scientifically-backed data showing that oatmeal reduce bad cholesterol and have a positive impact on heart health. A structure-function claim is a claim that the product can alter the structure and function of the body without any reference to any disease. For example if an orange juice product is fortified with calcium and a statement is made on the label that “calcium builds strong bones”, this would be a structure-function claim. Notice that there is no reference to a disease. The label did not say “calcium reduce the risk of osteoporosis”. That would be a health claim. Structure-function claims are found on food products but are more commonly seen in food supplements. Supplements are regulated separately from food by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What you will mostly see on food products in terms of claims, are nutrient-content claims. Nutrient-content claims gives an indication of the relative amounts of nutrients present in the product. For example, is it high, or low? Words commonly associated with nutrient-content claims include, “free”, “low”, “high in”, “reduced”, “good source”, “excellent source”, “rich in”, “fewer”, “more”, “added”. All of these terms are regulated by the FDA. Hence a manufacturer cannot use them unless the regulatory standard is met. For example, a manufacturer could not say that their product is “high in fiber” unless it contains 5 grams or more fiber per serving. 

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a resource developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services to provide principles of healthy eating, and is updated every five years. Five general guidelines for healthy eating are found in the document.

  1. Adapt a healthy eating pattern with the intention to get all the nutrients needed, to maintain body weight, and to avoid disease 
  2. Eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods in adequate amounts 
  3. Limit added sugar, saturated fats and sodium intake 
  4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices
  5. Help others make healthy choices e.g. at home, campus and community 

USDA Food Patterns

The USDA Food Patterns is a visual and easy way to help Americans incorporate the right foods in their diet in the right proportions. The food groups emphasized are grains, vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy. The  recommended proportions in the diet are laid out in MyPlate. 

Image result for myplate

Source: MyPlate

A long with this graphic illustration, the USDA Food Patterns help us decide how much of each food, in cups, ounces and ounce-equivalent we need to eat to be healthy. Explore the MyPlate website to find recommended intakes for grainsvegetablesfruitsprotein and dairy.

Mediterranean Food Pattern

The Mediterranean diet is another healthy food pattern. Populations on this diet have lower incidence and prevalence of cardiovascular disease compared to the US. The Mediterranean region includes countries such as Spain, France. Italy, Greece, Turkey and Israel. Although the diet across these countries may have many differences, there are some similarities that may account for the reason behind their health benefits. These include:

  1. Reduced intake of red meat, egg, poultry, fish and sweets; reducing the amount of saturated fat and sugar consumed 
  2. High intake of olive oil; which is rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids
  3. High intake of legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables, enriching the amount of fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals consumed
  4. Wine is consumed in moderation  

Reference: Thompson,&  J., Manore, M., Vaughan, L. (2020). The science of nutrition (5th ed.). New York. Pearson


  • Courtney Simons

    Dr. Courtney Simons has served as a food science researcher and educator for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph.D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.