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Food Label FAQ: Using the Nutrition Facts Panel

Confused about food labels and the Nutrition Facts Panel on the back of packaged foods? WebMD’s director of nutrition, Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, answers your questions here.

What does % daily value mean?

This shows the percentage of a certain nutrient in a food, based on a 2,000-calorie diet and the daily requirements for that nutrient. The daily value gives you a rough idea of a food's nutrient contribution to your day's intake. Some tips for making wise choices based on the nutrition facts panel: 

  • Choose foods with 5% daily value or less in nutrients we tend to overdo: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
  • Choose foods with 20% daily value or more in nutrients we tend to lack: fiber, calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C and E, and for some people, protein.

 

How do I interpret the food label if I need more -- or less -- than 2,000 calories per day?

Look at the calories per serving to get an idea of how the food fits into your needs for the day. Per serving, the healthiest foods are low in calories but rich in nutrients.

For example, if you’re on a 1,600-calorie diet, a food with 400 calories per serving would gobble 25% of your daily calories. It may not be worth it. But if you’re an athlete trying to eat 3,000 calories a day, it might be a fine choice.

Is the calcium in fortified foods just as good as natural sources like dairy?

U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 servings a day of low-fat or non-fat dairy because dairy is packed with a multitude of healthful nutrients, not just calcium. Dairy also has protein, potassium and vitamin D.

Calcium-fortified foods may not have those other nutrients. Ideally, we should get calcium from natural sources such as dairy. When that is not possible, calcium-fortified foods and calcium supplements are acceptable.

How long is food safe to eat after its 'sell by' expiration date?

Foods are generally safe to eat for up to 5 days after their “sell-by date.”

When you see a date stamp that says “best if used by,” the manufacturer is recommending the date for quality, not safety. When you see a date stamp that says “sell by,” the date is recommended by the manufacturer for peak quality. Only date stamps that say “use by…” reflect how long it’s safe to eat the food, particularly in perishable foods (chicken and other raw meats, for example) where bacteria could be present and multiply.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD on October 10, 2013

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