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Interactive Health
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Figuring Out Food Labels

You know how books have a table of contents that explains what's inside? Or maybe you have a toy that came with a diagram that identified each small piece.

Nutrition labels are sort of like that. They tell you what's inside the food you're eating and list its parts.

Getting Your Nutrition Facts Straight

The Nutrition Facts label gives you information about which nutrients (say: NEW-tree-ents) are in the food. Food contains fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. Food also contains vitamins, such as vitamin D, and minerals, such as calcium and iron. Your body needs the right combination of nutrients to work properly and grow.

The Nutrition Facts label is printed somewhere on the outside of packaged food, and you usually don't have to look hard to find it.

Most nutrients are measured in grams, also written as g. Some nutrients are measured in milligrams, or mg. Milligrams are very tiny — there are 1,000 milligrams in 1 gram.

Other information on the label is given in percentages.

Percent daily value is most useful for seeing if a food is high or low in nutrients:

  • A food with 5% or less of a nutrient is low in that nutrient.
  • A food with 10%–19% of a nutrient is a good source of that nutrient.
  • A food with 20% or more of a nutrient is high in that nutrient.

The information on food labels is based on an average adult diet of 2,000 calories per day. The actual number of calories and nutrients that kids need will depend on their age, weight, gender, and level of physical activity. (For more guidance, check out the USDA's MyPlate.)

Comparing Labels

Food labels aren't ideal for kids because they're based on what adults need to eat. But you can still get important information from food labels. You can get a general idea about whether the food has lots of nutrients, how much is in a serving, and how many calories are in a serving.

Kids also can use labels to compare two foods. Which one has more fiber? Which one has added sugars? Which one has protein?

The ingredient list is another important part of the food label. Ingredients are listed in order so you get an idea of how much of each ingredient is in the food. When something is listed first, second, or third, you know that this food probably contains a lot of it. The food will contain smaller amounts of the ingredients mentioned at the end of the list.

People with food allergies need to check ingredient lists to avoid foods that can cause an allergic reaction.

Serving Size

The nutrition facts label always lists a serving size, which is an amount of food, such as 1 cup of cereal, 2 cookies, or 5 pretzels. The rest of the label tells you how many nutrients are in 1 serving.

Servings per Container or Package

The label also tells you how many servings are contained in that package of food. If there are 15 servings in a box of cookies and each serving is 2 cookies, you have enough for all 30 kids in your class to have 1 cookie each. Math comes in handy with food labels!

Calories

A calorie is a unit of energy that measures how much energy a food provides to the body. The number of calories that's listed on the food label shows how many calories are in 1 serving.

If you eat 2 servings, you need to double the calories listed on the label to know how many calories you ate.

Fat

Fat is an important nutrient that your body needs but you don't want to eat too much. Total fat includes all the different kinds of fat in 1 serving of the food.

Saturated fats and trans fat are listed under total fats. They are often called "bad fats" because they raise cholesterol and increase a person's risk for developing heart disease. Unsaturated fats are often called "good fats" because they don't raise cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol and Sodium

These numbers tell you how much cholesterol and sodium (salt) are in a single serving of the food. They are included on the label because some people need to limit the amount of cholesterol and salt in their diets.

Total Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy. In addition to total carbohydrate, the food label lists dietary fiber, total sugar, and added sugars per serving.

Some foods naturally contain sugar, like fruit and milk. Snack foods, candy, and soda, though, often have added sugars. Added sugars add calories without important nutrients.

Protein

Your body needs protein to build and repair essential parts of the body, such as muscles, blood, and organs. If the body doesn't get enough carbohydrates or fats, it can use protein for energy.

Vitamins and Minerals

Some important vitamins and minerals are included on the Nutrition Facts label:

  • Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium to build bones and keep them strong. It also plays a part in heart health and fighting infection.
  • Calcium is needed for strong bones. It keeps nerves and muscles working and the heart healthy.
  • Iron helps the body make new, healthy red blood cells. Not enough iron leads to anemia.
  • Potassium is important for fluid balance and helps control blood pressure.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2022