Figuring out Food Labels

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It goes without saying that eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is important.  Food labels tell you what’s inside the food you’re eating, which allows you to make smart choices for keeping you and your family feeling healthy and great.  Food labels can seem confusing with all the numbers and percentages. Some key parts of a food label you should look out for are highlighted here.

 Parts of a Food Label

Serving Size:  This tells the amount of food in one serving/portion. The package might contain many servings, so be sure to look at this number to help control portions.

Servings Per Container or Package: This is how many servings there are in the package.  Some foods are low in calories and fat if you have only one serving. But if you eat more than one serving, the calories, fat and/or sugar can really add up!

Calories: This tells you how much energy you get in one serving of that food.

Total Fat: This is the total amount of all the different fats. While your body does need some fat, avoid foods with high saturated and/or trans fats which aren’t good for your heart.

Cholesterol and Sodium: This tells you how much of each are in one serving. Pick foods that are low in cholesterol and sodium.

Dietary Fiber: This tells you how much fiber is in one serving. Fiber helps your food move through your body easily. Look for foods high in fiber (4 grams or more per serving).

Sugars: This is the total amount of sugar (natural and added sugar) there is in one serving.  Our bodies don’t need too much sugar. It can add extra calories that we don’t need.

Protein: This is the amount of protein per serving. Protein helps keep muscles strong. Read carefully- high protein foods can also be high in fat.

Vitamins: Vitamins help your body stay healthy—foods high in vitamins will have 20% or more of daily values.

Quick Tips for Food Labels

Nutrition Facts

  • Portion Control
    Remember the serving size and servings per container are on the top of the label.  If the serving size is 5 crackers and you eat 10 crackers, then you have eaten 2 servings of crackers.
  • Low Level Nutrients
    Low level nutrients are nutrients listed on the food label that you want to limit in your diet. This includes total fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar. Select foods that are LOW in these areas because you don’t want too much of these in your diet.
  • High Level Nutrients
    High level nutrients are nutrients that you want more of in your diet. This includes protein, fiber, vitamins (folate, vitamin c, etc.) and minerals (iron, etc.). Look for foods that are HIGH in these 
  • 5/20 Rule
    The percentages in the “percent daily values” column come in handy to quickly check if there is a high or low amount of a particular nutrient.
    Rule of thumb: 5% is low and 20% is high for any of these nutrients. Look for higher percentages of the high level nutrients, and lower for the low level nutrients.
  • Ingredients List
    The ingredients list on the food label is very important because it tells you specifically what is in a food and can help you figure out how healthy the food really is. Ingredients are listed in decreasing order by weight. This means that there is the most of the first ingredient in your food, and the least of the last ingredient.  Look for grains with whole grains listed as the first ingredient. Try not to buy foods that have sugar (or a sugary ingredient) listed as one of the top 5 ingredients.

 Don’t Be Fooled by the name!

The ingredient list can also help you identify “hidden” ingredients, like added sugars (bad) and whole grains (good). Here are some other names they might be disguised as:

Added Sugars
Added sugar has lots of names. Here are some names to watch out for in the ingredient list:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Corn sweetener
  • Brown Sugar
  • Molasses
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • White sugar
  • Raw sugar
  • Syrup

Whole grains

Whole grains are healthier than refined grains because the bran and the germ of the grain/kernel are not lost during milling. Whole grain foods should have one of the following whole grain ingredients listed as their first ingredient:

  • Whole wheat
  • Whole oats/oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Whole grain barley
  • Popcorn
  • Bulgar (cracked wheat)
  • Whole grain corn/cornmeal
  • Whole rye
  • Wild rice
  • Quinoa
  • Millet

Beware! Labels like multi-grain, 100% wheat, seven-grain, stone-ground, bran, or cracked wheat do not mean that a food is made with whole grains. Be sure to read ingredient lists!

Food Label Quick Guide

Food Label

4 Easy Steps to Using Food Labels

Flow Chart

Do It Yourself Activity Instructions

Try out your nutrition label reading skills! There are several pairs of foods set out in front of you. Using the food label tools you have learned about, decide which of the two foods is the better option. Be sure to:

  1. Check the serving size of each item and think about the actual amount you would likely eat.
  2. Compare amounts of fat, sugar, sodium and cholesterol. Remember, you want less of these.
  3. Compare amounts of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Remember, you want more of these.
  4. Lastly, compare lists of ingredients. Remember, you want whole grain ingredients listed first and sugar ingredients listed later or not at all.

Check your answers by looking at the colored sticker on the bottom of or inside the food package. Green is the healthier, preferred option. Pink is the less desirable option of the two.

Remember in general, foods that are low in sugar, fat and sodium and high in fiber, vitamins and minerals are foods to eat more frequently. Foods high in fat, sugar and sodium and low in vitamins, minerals and fiber are foods to eat less frequently or avoid altogether. Foods that fall somewhere in the middle are “sometimes” foods.

Materials for the Figuring out Food Labels learning center:

The following examples would work (the bolded item is the healthier option and should be labeled with the green sticker):

  • Cereal Low in Sugar or Oatmeal versus cereal high in sugar (10+ grams)
  • Frozen Fruit versus Fruit Canned in Heavy Syrup
  • Whole wheat cracker versus Ritz or Cheez-It type crackers
  • Plain Yogurt versus Flavored Yogurt
  • Popcorn versus Cookies
  • Skim or 1% Milk versus Chocolate or Strawberry-flavored Milk
  • 100% Whole Wheat Bread versus White Bread
  • Hummus versus Ranch Dressing or Dip
  • Frozen Vegetables versus Canned Vegetables (regular salt)

Sources:

Nemours. Kids Health. Retrieved from www.kidshealth.org/parent/.

Nourish Interactive. (2008-2012). Nourish Interactive. Retrieved from www.nourishinteractive.com.

United States Department of Agriculture. Choosemyplate.gov. Retrieved from www.choosemyplate.gov.

Special thanks to Angeline Vanto for developing this learning center. 

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