Make Food Labels Work for You

Now that consumers have become accustomed to the “Nutrition Facts” labels on food products, counting calories and fat ought to be a piece of (light) cake, right? Well, yes and no.

Yes, the food labels can be a tremendous help when it comes to counting calories. For one thing, comparable products bear labels based on comparable serving sizes. Also, the “% Daily Value” column should prove helpful, especially for limiting fat intake.

But the new food labels aren’t miracle cures for obesity all by themselves. They won’t do math, for example, and math is what consumers may need to maintain a healthy weight while using the new food labels.

The % Daily Values on the food label are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This is the amount of total calories per day that an adult, moderately active 132-pound female would need to maintain her healthy weight. A female who weighs less than 132 pounds, or who does not exercise regularly, would actually gain weight if she consumed 2,000 calories per day!

In fairness, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had to set the number somewhere. Ed Scarbrough, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Office of Food Labeling, said the 2,000 number was established because it is “user friendly,” and allows consumers to more easily calculate the Daily Values needed for their own diets.

Which is true. Consumers can determine their daily nutrient needs for fat and saturated fat using the label’s nutrition recommendations no matter what their calorie level. Total fat, of course, should be 30 percent or less of calories, and saturated fat should be limited to less than 10 percent of calories. (The Daily Values for cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals stay the same for all calorie levels.) So to personalize actual fat intake limits, here is a formula you can follow.

First, determine your daily calorie needs. Most people leading moderately active lives (exercising regularly — that is, at least three times per week for 30 to 60 minutes each time) need about 15 calories per pound to maintain their weight. For example, a 110-pound moderately active female needs 1,650 calories (110 x 15) to maintain her healthy weight.

Second, adapt your fat goals to correspond with calorie needs. The 1,650-calorie person mentioned above should limit total fat to 55 grams per day (1,650 x 30 percent divided by 9 calories/gram) and saturated fat to 18 grams per day (1,650 x 10 percent divided by 9 calories/gram). (Note: in a 2,000 calorie diet, total fat should be less than 65 grams and saturated fat should be less than 20 grams.)

Now, you can apply a sort of “personalized Nutrition Facts label” to various food choices. (Note: Although it is important to know where you stand with your dietary intake, especially of fat, keep in mind that the guidelines apply to your diet as consumed over several days, and not necessarily to single meals or foods.) As an example, below is a “before and after” nutrition Facts label for a Chicken Monterey with Mexican Rice frozen dinner entree.

Chicken Monterey with Mexican Rice
Nutrition Facts as shown on package “Personalized” Nutrition Facts


Based on 2,000 calorie diet Based on 1,650 calorie diet
Serving Size: 1 package 1 package
Calories per serving: 410 410
Calories from fat: 180 180
% Daily Value % Daily Value
Total Fat 20g
Saturated Fat 20g
Nutrient Needs Nutrient Needs
Total Fat less than 65g less than 55g
Total Saturated fat less than 20g less than 18g
Total Carbohydrates 300g 248g
Dietary fiber 25g 21g