Using the Nutrition Facts Panel to Make Healthy Food Choices

By: Gwen Vito & Christa Drew

According to the 2010 International Food Information Council Food and Health Survey, 68% of Americans are looking to the Nutrition Facts panel (NFP) on packages for nutrition information. Among those consumers that use the label, Calorie content is ranked as the top piece of information used. But how does this help us in relation to our daily needs and overall diet?  Earlier this month,The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hosted a web cast to discuss how we should use information on the label to guide us in making healthy, balanced dietary choices.

- Count the Servings. The first thing to look at on the label is "Serving Size", listed on the first line under "Nutrition Facts". Serving sizes are standardized so that we can compare nutrients in similar products. The nutrition information on the rest of the label refers to one serving. If the entire package is consumed, the nutrient content must be multiplied by the amount of servings in the package. Because there are often multiple servings in a package, it is important to know the number of servings that we eat.

- Calories In = Calories Out. The second important piece of information to consider on the label is "Calories".  According to the FDA, Calories are a measurement of how much energy you get from one serving of the food product. "Calories from Fat" is the number of calories that come from only the fat in the product. Balancing the Calories consumed (input) with the level and frequency of physical activity (output) is a key component of maintaining a healthy weight.

- What Is "%DV"? Next, we look at percent daily values or %DV. The percent daily value is the amount of that nutrient that you get in one serving as compared to dietary recommendations.  As the footnote at the bottom of the label will tell you, these are based off of a 2000-Calorie diet. Your personal needs may be higher or lower than the %DV if your Calorie needs are different.  Find out your daily calorie and nutrient needs at

- The 5/20 Rule. Even if our needs are higher or lower, we can still use %DV as a reference to compare one product to one another. In the FDA web cast, Dr. Essie Yamini suggested using the 5/20 rule as a guideline. She explained if a product contains five percent or less of a nutrient, than the food is low in that nutrient. If it contains 20 percent or more, the food is high in that nutrient. Try to consume foods that are five percent or less (low) in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. Choose foods that are 20 percent or more (high) in nutrients like vitamins, calcium, iron and fiber. Remember to take serving size into consideration while evaluating products.

- Lean Protein and Natural Carbohydrates. Next, we take a look at protein and carbohydrates. It is always best to choose lean, low-fat and fat-free protein sources. These include lean meat, poultry (no skin), beans, soybeans, tofu and 1 percent or skim milk or soymilk. Fiber and sugar are both types of carbohydrates. To decrease your risk of heart disease, choose foods that are high in fiber like beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Sugar occurs naturally in certain foods, like fruit and dairy, but it is also added to many products, like soft drinks or juice. You can check the ingredients list, at the bottom of the label, to see if there is added sugar in your food. Ingredients in a product are listed in descending order from highest amount to lowest.

- What Do We Need? The footnote between the nutrient content and the ingredients list contains important information about fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrate daily values. Try to make sure that your fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium intakes are below the recommended level to maintain good health.

Are you part of the 68 percent of Americans that already report using the Nutrition Facts panel? What is the most important nutrient for you look at when you are comparing products?

For a quick guide to the nutrition facts label, check out:

For information on your personal dietary needs, visit: