Why Don't Nutrition Labels Include Percent Daily Value of Calories?

03/26/2014 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2014
  • Leo Brown Writer and founder of

There's a proposal for a new Nutrition Facts label, the first revision in 20 years! It's been praised by nutrition leaders such as Marion Nestle ("How's this for a surprise? I like it!") for including features such as added sugars, a bolder indication of calories, and, most of all, larger, "more realistic" serving sizes. For example, ice cream has gone from a half to a whole cup.

(About the serving sizes, I can't help but feel conflicted. I understand that "more realistic" serving sizes will make it harder to imagine that we're eating well. At the same time, must we capitulate to a warped food culture? A cup of full-fat ice cream contains a huge amount of our recommended daily value of total calories, mostly by way of fats and sugar. If we're going to adjust the serving size for pragmatic reasons, let's not totally forget that by bloating -- in some cases, doubling -- the portions, we'll transform a healthier option into a decidedly unhealthy one, at least if you stick to the dietary guidelines.)

Speaking of calories. Neither the current nor proposed label include Percent Daily Value of calories. All of the other Percent Daily Value figures are listed, and they are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Wouldn't it be powerful to see that an item is, say, 35 percent of your calories for the day?

But wait! We all have different caloric needs!

Yes, it's true. The exact same is true with regard to fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamin D, calcium, and all of our other nutritional needs. The recommendations for those nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The whole label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. So if the label on a pack of Skittles says it contains 13 percent of your saturated fat for the day, you'd have to do some math to figure out an adjusted percentage that's specific to you.

I need around 2,800 calories each day, so that means more fat, more protein, more carbs, more everything than the nutrition labels suggest. More Skittles. It all adds up to more calories. To get the real Percent Daily Value of each nutrient, I'd probably enlist a fourth grader to help with the long division. But the label's estimates give me a sense for where I'm at.

The label is just to give you a general idea.

It's going to be flawed and confusing. That's what happens when an organization makes nutrition recommendations for 300 million different humans, all with different bodies and dietary needs. The Percent Daily Value figures for all nutrients are inherently, irreparably fickle. So why not include the figure for calories?

This post originally appeared on, where Leo Brown writes about food, nutrition, and health.