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Try the 5/20 rule for understanding nutrition labels at a glance

This very easy trick gives shoppers a quick way to grasp the good, the bad, and the ugly in packaged food.

That there are labels listing Nutrition Facts on packaged food is really quite great. It's an invaluable tool for showing consumers just what they are getting themselves into. And recently the labels have gotten even better. In 2016, the FDA changed the rules – large manufacturers switched to the new label as of January 1, 2020; manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual sales have until January 1, 2021 to comply. The new labels are an improvement and now have things like added sugars, which were not included before; and calories per serving will be larger, to name just a few of the changes. (The label above follows the new rules.)

But even so, it can be a little hard to understand the nuances of a nutrition label. Some things are easy to grasp, but when it comes to juggling grams and Daily Value percentages and so on, it can get a bit murky. Say, for example, a serving of something has 5 grams of protein; that sounds pretty good, but it only has 3% of the Daily Value, which doesn't sound so promising.

Here, we can let the “% Daily Value” (% DV) be our guide – and it's the secret magic trick behind the 5/20 rule.

The % DV shows how much of a nutrient is in one serving of food, based on the amount (in grams, milligrams, or micrograms) of that nutrient recommended per day. So for example, the Daily Value for saturated fat is 20 grams – that is the maximum amount someone should have in a day. If a serving of something has 10 grams – which is half the daily allowance – the label would say 50% DV.

But what does that actually mean? The FDA explains, that as a general rule:

5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is low
20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is high

So if you want a product low in added sugar, for example, 5% DV is good; if you want an item high in fiber, 20% DV or more is good. It shows how to find more of the nutrients you want to consume more of and less of the ones of which you would like to eat less.

The FDA also recommends comparing the % DV of different food products (if the serving size is the same) to choose products that are higher in nutrients you want to get more of and lower in nutrients you don't want. The % DV can also help you sleuth out the truth behind front label claims like “light,” “low,” and “reduced.”

In general, Americans should be eating more fiber, potassium, and calcium (look for those 20s!) and less sugar, saturated fat, and sodium (look for those 5s!). But tailor it to your own nutritional needs – and that's it. That's the 5/20 rule, isn't it easy?

This very easy trick gives shoppers a quick way to grasp the good, the bad, and the ugly in packaged food.