What Is the NLEA?

Nutrition Labeling and Education Act Governs Nutrition Labels

Woman in grocery store reading nutrition label

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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration provides guidelines to food manufacturers for what to put on nutrition labels under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, or NLEA. You can use this information to decide how a food fits in to your dietary needs and preferences. Use these definitions to educate yourself about packaging and dietary guidelines.

What Is the NLEA?

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over the nutrition labeling of most foods regulated by the agency. This includes regulation of the health claims brands can include on food labels, and the serving sizes indicated. An NLEA serving size is the amount of food generally consumed by one person during a single eating occasion.

2020 NLEA Rules

The law has changed over the years, with regular updates and changes to labeling requirements. A substantial update occurred in January 2020, including changes such as:

  • Serving size: More prominent print for the number of servings; showing the number of servings in the container with bold, large type; updated suggested serving sizes: In measures and grams. 
  • Calories: Larger print displaying calories; clear print showing calories per serving.
  • Added sugars: Listed long with total sugar amount, to reveal how much is added vs. natural sugar
  • Daily value: Updated daily values for nutrients; percent of the daily value in each serving; actual amounts of nutrients included in milligrams and percentage of the daily value in each serving. A new footnote explains what the percent of daily value means and how it contributes to a 2,000-calorie diet. 
  • Required nutrients: Update to nutrients required on the label: Vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium

NLEA Serving Size Information

Many people assume that the serving size listed on the nutrition facts label is the amount of food they should eat. But the serving size listed on food packages is not the recommended serving.

According to the NLEA, serving size must be based on the amount of food we typically eat, not on the amount of food we should eat. Food manufacturers are required to use a standard guideline called the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) to calculate serving size.

Reference amounts (RACCs) were developed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) after years of studying eating behavior. But as you might imagine, the amount of food we typically eat has changed over time. In many cases, people eat larger portions of popular foods, like bagels and soft drinks. So, the way the FDA determines a serving size can change as well.

Serving Size Definitions

It can be helpful to understand the difference between these different serving size definitions:

Serving Size Definitions

  • Serving size or NLEA serving size: The amount of food typically consumed during a single eating occasion, based on the FDA’s RACC. This serving size is listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Recommended serving size: The amount of a food that various health organizations suggest eating. For example, the American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish per week for heart health, and defines a serving as 3 ounces.
  • Portion size: The amount of each food that you actually eat.

You can use the recommended serving size to guide your decisions on how much food to eat. You can also get personalized recommendations for the amount of food to eat each day.

The calories you consume each day are affected by the portion sizes you consumer. You can use an online calorie calculator to determine the number of calories you need. If you are trying to lose weight, you can use a calculator targeted for weight loss

Once you know your calorie goal, divide your calories between daily meals and snacks. For example, if you need to eat a standard 2,000 calorie per day diet, you might eat 500 calories at each of three meals and consume two snacks that total 250 calories each. Then choose the portion sizes that help you meet those calorie target goals.

Serving Size Definitions by Food Group

Guidelines for recommended serving sizes of various foods vary. But in general, these are commonly suggested amounts for a single serving:

  • Fruit: 1 medium whole fruit or ½ cup cooked, canned fruit, or 1/4 cup dried fruit
  • Vegetables: 1 cup of raw or cooked leafy greens or ½ cup of higher calorie vegetables like carrots
  • Potatoes, pasta, or grains: ½ cup or one slice of bread
  • Dairy: 1 cup of skim milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese
  • Meat, fish, or poultry: About 3 ounces
  • Oil or salad dressing: 2 teaspoons
  • Alcohol: 4 ounces (wine), 12 ounces (beer), 1.5 ounces (liquor)

How to Read Nutrition Labels

You can check nutrition labels to help determine what a likely serving size would be, and how many calories and macronutrients the food provides. This helps you know if a particular food fits into your daily eating pattern.

The column on the right side of the nutrition label shows the percentage under "% Daily Value," which tells you how a nutrient contributes to your daily nutrient intake if you consume 2,000 calories per day. If you eat more or fewer calories than this, you can adjust accordingly.

If a particular nutrient has a percent daily value of 5% or less, the food is low in that nutrient. A value of 20% or more indicates that the food is high in that particular nutrient.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.

  2. Library of Congress. H.R.3562 - 101st Congress (1989-1990): Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 | Congress.gov.

  3. Great Lakes Label. New 2020 (NLEA) Food Label Requirements.

  4. Institute of Medicine Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols. History of nutrition labeling. In: Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, eds., Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. National Academies Press.

  5. American Heart Association. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids.

  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food portions and servings. How do they differ?.

Additional Reading

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.