Nutrition Facts Labels and How to Read Them

Chow on 07.22.11
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Image Credit: Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Corbis

Nutrition facts labels can give you loads of information about what a product contains however, they can also be overwhelming and complex. And anyway, who among us has time to read every package of food that goes into the grocery cart while simultaneously trying to juggle needy kids, save money by scouting the deals, and stick to your grocery list without giving in to your kid's desire for the junk food containing their favorite cartoon character?

Even as a pro at nutrition label deciphering, I know that they can be difficult to translate at times, especially when feeding children -- whose dietary guidelines do not fit under the same standards as adults. (Food labels are designed for an adult who eats an average of 2,000 calories per day.)

As a registered dietitian and food enthusiast, I am very keen on feeding children (and ourselves) as many whole foods as possible -- so often the food label is a non-issue when you're picking between veggies at the farmers market or whole grains in the bulk bin. However, as a busy, tired, and currently pregnant mama, I am also a realistic cook and know that sometimes our family will consume packaged or processed foods.  That's where the food label comes in to help me pick the healthier packaged foods available. Here's what you need to know to use them.

Important Information on the Food Label

Nutrients Listed: A nutrition food label is required to list the total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated and trans-fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbs, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, iron, Vitamins A and C, and calcium content.

Serving Size: The serving size is one of the most important items to make sure you understand. All of the above items are the amounts indicated for the serving size, not for the entire box or for one item, a cracker, for example. Also, remember that the serving size is determined using adult dietary guidelines, so the serving for your child may be quite different. A good rule of thumb for kids servings is 1 Tbs. per year of age.

Ingredients List: The ingredients on a food label are listed in order of weight, from the most to the least. So, if sugar is the first ingredient, that means there is more sugar in the product than any other ingredient. Also, be aware that there are alternative names for certain foods like sugar and salt, so brush up on your food vocab in order to detect those well masked items.

% Daily Value: This percentage indicates how a serving contributes to the 2,000 calorie diet. You can use this to compare products (for example: how much calcium soy milk contains versus cow's milk), or whether a product contains a little or a lot of a specific nutrient. A food is considered high in a nutrient if it contains 20% or more of the Daily Value.

Using a Nutrition Food Label for Kid's Meals

There are a few things I try to pay attention to when reading a food label on a packaged item for my daughter. When a packaged food claims the product has vegetables, I make sure that the label lists some Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Also, when substituting a packaged meal (for example, mac and cheese or canned soup) for a home-cooked meal, I make sure the food contains at least 7 g of protein per 1-cup serving.

Probably what I look at the most on a nutrition food label is the ingredients list.  If the list is a mile long, I almost always put it immediately back on the shelf. I try to stick to packaged foods that are "less" processed and closer to the true food. I have also learned what hidden foods to watch out for (like maltose and high fructose corn syrup, which are really just sugar), and too many additives or preservatives like food dyes.

My last tip to use when buying packaged foods for kids is to understand the health claims on the front of the box. These health claims must meet strict government guidelines. For example, a claim of fiber means there must be at least 5 g of fiber per serving, or that sugar free means there is less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving. Remember that even if a food is sugar-free it may still be high in fat and calories.

Ultimately, food labels are just one tool among many. The key to healthy eating is a diverse range of predominantly fresh, whole foods and, of course, lots of fruit and vegetables. But as and when you do venture into the ready meal aisle, it's worth being prepared so you can know what you are really putting in your cart.

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