A Helpful Hint for Food Labels

By Charlyn Fargo

February 14, 2020 5 min read

For many, reading food labels is like plowing through the latest snowstorm: It takes time and perseverance.

Here's a helpful idea called the 5/20 rule. It helps you quickly decide which foods have a lot — or not a lot — of nutrients. If a nutrient meets 20% or more of your daily value, that's generally a lot. If a nutrient has 5% or less of your daily value, that's pretty low. The daily values, by the way, are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you're trying to eat fewer than 2,000 calories, you'll have to adjust the percentages downward.

If you're looking to boost your calcium intake but minimize sugars, look for a product with 20% of your daily value of calcium and less than 5% of your daily value of added sugars. This also works really well for a quick look at lowering sodium. If a product has less than 5% of your daily value of sodium, you know it's a low-sodium product.

One other thing: Be sure to look at the serving size. If the serving size is for one person, the numbers are good, but if it serves two and you plan to eat the whole thing, you'll need to multiply the numbers by two — and that will increase the percentage.

For healthy eating, it's important to pay attention to the numbers on the label that pertain to your health goals. For most Americans, those goals include boosting fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin D and limiting added sugars and saturated fats.

The bottom line? The back of the package may be more helpful than the trendy buzzwords on the front, boasting "free from," "natural" or "improved." Those aren't universally defined. Remember no single food is meant to provide everything you need, but long-term healthy food choices can make a big difference.

Q and A

Q: Does pasta have a place in a weight-loss diet?

A: Whether you prefer spaghetti, spirals, penne or lasagna, the ingredients for traditional pastas are the same: semolina flour and water. It's not the pasta but rather your choice of toppings that can contribute to weight gain. A half-cup of cooked pasta provides about 100 calories. The calories add up when you add the Alfredo sauce, meat, cheese or Italian sausage. Healthier choices include tomato-based sauces with vegetables.


I use my slow cooker a lot in these cold, wintry months, but sometimes, you just crave a salad. Here's a chopped salad with a wonderful avocado and buttermilk dressing. It's from the latest Eating Well magazine.


1 cup buttermilk

1/2 ripe avocado

3 tablespoons fresh herbs, such as tarragon, mint or parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

4 cups kale, chopped

2 cups red cabbage, shredded

2 cups broccoli florets, finely chopped

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded

1 cup carrots, shredded

1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup almonds, toasted and sliced

1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries

Combine buttermilk, avocado, herbs, vinegar, salt and pepper in a blender; process until smooth. Combine kale, cabbage, broccoli, chicken, carrots, onion, almonds and cherries in a large bowl; toss to combine. Add the dressing, and toss again. Serves 4 (2 1/2 cups each).

Per serving: 337 calories; 30 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams sugars (7 grams added); 13 grams fat (2 grams saturated); 6 grams fiber; 644 milligrams sodium.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Illinois, and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

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