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The familiar nutrient fact label first appeared on packaged foods in 1986 -- and it has been evolving ever since.

"The original intention was to educate people about the connection between diet and heart disease," explains Irwin Rosenberg, MD, professor of medicine at Tufts University in Boston, who has played a key role in advising the federal government on nutrition labeling.

Information about calories and calories from fat was added as health experts charted the growing problem of overweight and obesity. More recently, several key vitamins and minerals joined the list. Health officials are currently discussing additional changes to the labels.

Using Nutrition Facts Well

All that information can help consumers make healthier choices. But too much of a good thing can also be confusing.

"Translating nutrition facts from the label to the kitchen table can be tricky," says Jonathan L. Blitstein, PhD, a research psychologist at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., who has studied how consumers use nutrient labels. Jeanne P. Goldberg, PhD, professor of nutrition communication at Tufts University, agrees. "Frankly, I sometimes think people are best served by ignoring most of what's on the nutrient facts panel, and just focusing on a few of the items that really matter."

What should you zero in on? The experts offer some tips to help you use the nutrition facts to boost your health:

Serving Size: A Critical Fact

The top of the label describes a standard serving size and how many servings a package contains -- critical information for interpreting the rest of the numbers on the label.

"A bottle of sweetened ice tea may only have 75 calories per serving. But if that bottle contains two and a half servings and you drink the whole thing, you're consuming 225 calories," says Christine A. Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University.

Serving sizes are based on standard measures agreed upon by the USDA and the FDA. One serving of cereal is 3/4 cup, for instance. A single serving of macaroni and cheese is a cup. "Most all of the information that follows on the nutrition label is based on that serving size, from calories to grams of fat. So it's essential to know what a serving is, and to know how much you actually eat," says Rosenbloom.

Saturated Fat and Trans Fat: Key Fat Facts

Fat facts on food labels indicate total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat amounts. Total fat matters if you're trying to lose weight and want to follow a low-fat diet.

"But to prevent heart disease, the crucial items are saturated fat and trans fat," says Myrtle McCulloch, MS, clinical assistant professor of nutritionist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "These are the fats that increase cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease."

Products that contain half a gram or less of trans fats can still claim to be trans-fat-free. To know for sure, look further down on the label to the ingredients list. If the product contains partially hydrogenated oils, it contains at least some trans fats. Look for foods that are low in both saturated fats and trans fat.