Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet has been shown to lower the risk of
coronary heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and osteoporosis. And the grocery store
shelves are full of foods with packaging promising to help do that.
But it's important to take a close look — beyond the promises — at
the nutritional values, ingredients, and calorie counts in the food you buy, and to
understand how they factor into your family's healthy eating.
Food labels provide this information and allow you to make smart choices to help
meet your family's nutritional needs.
What's on Food Labels?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) require labels on almost all packaged foods. The labels must include nutrition
information in readable type. The information usually is on the back or side of packaging
under the title "Nutrition Facts." It's also displayed in grocery stores near fresh
foods, like fruits, vegetables, and fish.
The nutrition facts label includes:
a column of information — "% Daily Value" — that shows what
portion of the amount of daily recommended nutrients the product provides, based on
a 2,000-calorie diet
information about total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, fiber, and
Other information on the food label:
content claims, such as "light" or "low-fat," that must meet strict government
definitions so that they are accurate and consistent from one food to another
health claims, like "While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated
fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of this disease," which must meet government
requirements for approval
To make healthy, informed food choices, it's important to understand: food label
claims; serving sizes; calorie requirements; percent daily values; and important nutrients,
vitamins, and minerals.
Food Label Claims
Manufacturers often make claims about the healthfulness of a food on the front
of a package — like "fat-free" or "no cholesterol." The FDA requires food-makers
to provide scientific evidence in order to make those claims. Even so, it's a good
idea to carefully read the claims and understand what they mean:
Reduced fat means that a product has 25% less fat than the same
Light means that the product has 50% less fat than the same regular
Low-fat means a product has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.
Even if a food is low in fat, it might not be low in calories or nutritious. Even
a low-fat food can be high in sugar. Food companies also may make claims such as "no
cholesterol," but that does not necessarily mean the product is low in fat.
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
At the top of each food label is an amount listing for serving size. These are
determined by the food manufacturer, and they're based on the amount that people generally
eat. All nutritional value information on the label is based on the serving size.
So if a serving size is 2 crackers and you eat 4 crackers — which would be two
servings — you need to double all of the nutrition information.
The number of servings per container tells you how many serving sizes are in the
whole package. So if one serving is 1 cup, and the entire package has 5 cups, there
are five servings per package.
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 indicates how many
calories are in one serving.
Calories From Fat
The second number, calories from fat, tells the total calories in one serving that
come from fat. The label lists fat so that people can monitor the amount of fat in
Dietitians generally recommend that:
Adults get no more than 30% of calories from fat. (If you eat a 2,000-calorie
diet per day, no more than 600 of these should come from fat.)
Children 1–3 years old should get 30%–40% of calories from fat.
Kids and teens 4–18 years old should get 25%–30% of calories from
Percent Daily Values
Percent daily values are listed in the right-hand column in percentages. They tell
how much of a nutrient a person will get from eating one serving of that food. If
a serving has 18% iron, then that food is providing 18% of your daily iron needs based
on 2,000 calories per day.
Percent daily value is most useful for seeing whether a food is high or low in
A food with 5% or less of a nutrient is considered to be low in that nutrient.
A food with 10%–19% of a nutrient is considered a good source of that nutrient.
A food with 20% or more of a nutrient is considered high in that nutrient.
The information on food labels is based on an average diet of 2,000 calories per
day, but the actual number of calories and nutrients that kids need will vary according
to their age, weight, gender, and level of physical activity. (For more guidance,
check out the USDA's MyPlate.)
So use food labels as a guide, but don't worry so much about calculating the nutrients
down to the exact ounce as long as your kids are healthy. If you have concerns, talk
to your doctor.
This number indicates how much fat
is in a single serving of food and it's usually measured in grams. Although eating
too much fat can lead to obesity
and related health problems, our bodies do need some fat every day.
Fats are an important source of energy — they contain twice as much energy
per gram as carbohydrate or protein. Fats provide insulation and cushioning for the
skin, bones, and internal organs. Fat also carries and helps store certain vitamins
(A, D, E, and K).
But because eating too much fat can contribute to health problems, including heart
disease, adults and kids over 4 years old should have about 30% of their daily calorie
intake come from fat. Kids 1 to 3 years old should get 30%–40% of calories from
Saturated Fat and Trans Fat
The amount of saturated fat appears beneath total fat. The FDA also requires food-makers
to list trans fats separately on the label.
Saturated fats and trans fats are often called "bad fats" because they raise cholesterol
and increase a person's risk for developing heart disease. Both saturated and trans
fats are solid at room temperature (picture them clogging up arteries!).
Saturated fat usually comes from animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk,
ice cream, and meats. Trans fats are naturally found in these foods, too. But they're
also in vegetable oils that have been specially treated, or hydrogenated, to be solid
at room temperature — the fats in stick margarine and shortening, for example.
Some cookies, crackers, fried foods, snack foods, and processed foods also contain
Saturated fats should account for less than 10% of the calories that kids eat each
day, and the amount of trans fat that they consume should be as low as possible (less
than 1% of total calories).
Unsaturated fats are also listed under total fat. These are fats that are liquid
at room temperature. Foods high in unsaturated fat are vegetable oils, nuts, and fish.
Unsaturated fats are often called "good fats" because they don't raise cholesterol
levels as saturated fats do. Most fats should come from sources of unsaturated fats.
measured in milligrams, is listed under the fat information. Cholesterol is important
in producing vitamin D, some hormones, and in building many other important substances
in the body.
Cholesterol can become a problem if the amount in the blood is too high, though,
which can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis, a blockage and hardening
of arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Most of the cholesterol a person needs is manufactured by the liver. However, dietary
sources such as meat and poultry, eggs, and whole-milk dairy products also contribute
to cholesterol level.
Sodium, a component of salt, is listed on the Nutrition Facts label in milligrams.
Small amounts of sodium are necessary for keeping proper body fluid balance, but too
much can contribute to high
blood pressure. Almost all foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium but
many processed foods contain greater amounts.
This number, listed in grams, combines several types of carbohydrates:
dietary fibers, sugars, and other carbohydrates. Carbs are the most abundant source
of calories. Up to 60% of a child's total calories should come from carbohydrates.
The best sources are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Listed under total carbohydrate, dietary fiber
itself has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. High-fiber diets
promote bowel regularity, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and can help reduce
Also listed under total carbohydrate on food labels, sugars are found in most foods.
Fruits naturally contain simple sugars but also contain fiber, water, and vitamins,
which make them a healthy choice.
Snack foods, candy, and soda, on the other hand, often have large amounts of added
sugars. Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content
in soft drinks and snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these "empty
calories" usually contain few other nutrients.
This listing tells you how much protein is in a single serving of a food and is
usually measured in grams. Most of the body — including muscles,
skin, and the immune system — is made
up of protein. If the body doesn't get enough fat and carbohydrates, it can use protein
Foods high in protein include eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt,
nuts, soybeans, and dried beans. Anywhere from 10%-20% of the calories that kids consume
each day should come from protein.
Vitamin A and Vitamin C
Vitamins A and C are two important vitamins, which is why they're required to be
listed on the Nutrition Facts label. The amount of each vitamin per serving is measured
in percent daily values — so eating a food with a percent daily value of 80%
vitamin C gives you 80% of the recommended daily value for vitamin C based on a 2,000-calorie
Vitamin A, which usually appears first on a food label's list of vitamins and minerals,
is important for good eyesight and helps maintain healthy skin. It's found in orange
vegetables, such as carrots and squash, and in dark green, leafy vegetables.
Vitamin C helps the body build and maintain connective tissues, heal wounds, and
fight infections. It's found in citrus fruits and other fruits, and some vegetables.
Food companies might also list the amounts of other vitamins.
Calcium and Iron
The percentages of these two important minerals are required on labels and measured
in percent daily values. Food companies can also list the amount of other minerals.
Calcium has a lot of
uses in the body, but is best known for its role in building healthy
bones and teeth. Milk and other dairy products are excellent calcium sources.
Kids between 1 and 3 years old need 700 milligrams of calcium per day, while 4- to
8-year-olds need 1,000 milligrams.
The calcium requirement for kids and teens 9 to 18 years old jumps to 1,300 milligrams
per day — the equivalent of 4 cups (about 1 liter) of milk. It's easy to see
why most teens in the United States don't get enough calcium. But calcium also is
in other foods, such as fortified orange juice, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables.
Iron helps the body make
new, healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, so it's important to get
enough iron. Teenage girls and women need extra iron to compensate for that lost in
the blood during menstruation. Meat is the best source of iron, but it's also found
in iron-fortified cereals, tofu, dried beans, and dark green, leafy vegetables.
Label Listings for Avoiding Allergies
Food labels must also include the ingredients that are in the product, listed according
to how much of the ingredient the food contains.
Reading the ingredient list is especially important if someone in your family has
a food allergy.
Since 2006, food-makers have been required to clearly state on food labels (after
or next to the list of ingredients) whether the products contain common food allergens.
In some cases, it's easy to identify what's safe to eat by checking the listed
ingredients on a label. However, some ingredients that could trigger an allergic reaction
may be listed under an unfamiliar name. A dietitian can provide suggestions on what
foods to avoid and hidden ingredients to beware of.
Use your food label smarts to create a healthy, well-balanced diet. It might seem
complicated at first, but it can help you make good choices when shopping for your