Food & Recipes

Nutrition Labels, Decoded

by Meghan Rabbitt

Nutrition Labels, Decoded

What to pay attention to and what to ignore to make healthier choices for your family

Serving Size
Start here, since the rest of the label’s info is based on this number. You might have to do some quick math when it comes to food for kids: If your toddler snacks on only 1/2 cup of cereal and the serving size is 1 cup, adjust accordingly to find out what nutrients he’s getting. Also crucial: the “servings per container” line. Since many snacks (like a 16-ounce bottle of juice) actually have two servings per container, you’ll have to double all the numbers if you end up scarfing down the whole thing.

One of the least important numbers for kids under 5, if they’re at a normal weight. “Little kids are more tuned in to their hunger than we are, so they can usually regulate their own calories,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, Ph.D., a dietitian in Sacramento, California, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). For school-age kids — and younger, if they’re overweight — you’ll want to pay closer attention to how many calories they’re taking in. The ADA’s recommended calorie intake:
Ages 2-3: 1,000 to 1,400 calories per day
Ages 4-8: 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day (boys need slightly more calories, and so do really active kids)
Ages 9-13: 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day for girls; 1,800 to 2,600 calories per day for boys.

Calories From Fat
Kids should get 30 to 35 percent of their daily calories from fat, while adults should shoot for less than 30 percent. An easy way to calculate fat calories: Look for a low “calories from fat” number. For example, a 100-calorie snack should have fewer than 30 calories from fat.

Both kids and adults need to take in around 300 mg of cholesterol per day, in part to make the myelin sheath that surrounds the body’s nerves. While it’s true that too much cholesterol can build up in the arteries and cause heart disease, experts now know that trans and saturated fats play a bigger role in raising blood cholesterol than does the cholesterol in food. The bottom line: Shoot for foods low in cholesterol, but you don’t have to avoid it at all costs.

The daily recommended allowance for kids:
Ages 2-3: 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day
Ages 4-8: 1,200 to 1,900 mg per day
Ages 9-13: 1,500 to 2,200 mg per day
Since sodium may raise blood pressure in some people, the maximum recommended for adults is 2,300 mg — about one teaspoon of salt! Of course, we all consume far more than that thanks to the amount of processed foods we eat. (Just one cup of boxed mac and cheese has nearly 600 mg.) And since most restaurant food is typically higher in sodium, it’s smart to limit sodium-rich foods at home.

Vitamins and minerals are essential for growing kids, but your child is likely getting most of what she needs as long as she really eats things from every food group. The nutrients kids most often lack include vitamins A, B6, C, and D and the minerals calcium, iron, and zinc. See the % Daily Value to find out if a food is a good source of the vitamins and minerals listed on the label.

% Daily Value
The percentage of nutrients in a food, based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily intake. The percentages are keyed to a 2,000-calorie diet, though, so a quick way to figure out what your child is getting is to use the percentage as a clue to whether a food is high or low in certain nutrients. A food that’s 5 percent or less is considered to be low in that nutrient; if it’s between 10 percent and 19 percent, it’s a good source; 20 percent or higher means it’s an excellent source.

We all need some fat to absorb vitamins, help our internal organs work efficiently, and keep us feeling satisfied after meals — and it’s especially important for kids’ brain development. But it’s the type of fat to zero in on here. When you check out a label, look for a low saturated-fat content and little or no trans fat. For both adults and children over 2, fewer than 10 percent of daily calories should come from saturated fat. Shortcut: Try to limit — or, better, avoid — packaged foods with a saturated-fat content over 1.5 grams per serving.

Pay attention to total carbohydrates, as well as the amount of dietary fiber and sugars in a food. For a good idea of the type of fiber and sugar it contains, check the ingredients list. Whole-grain fiber is ideal, and should be high on the list, while sugars (which may be hiding under names that end in “ose,” like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) should be lower.

These are always listed from the greatest to smallest quantity, so the first three to five ingredients will give you a sense of how healthy a food is. “In general, you want to look for those that are recognizable, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and steer clear of anything that’s hydrogenated, which signifies that it’s a trans fat,” says Gazzaniga- Moloo. What about those ingredients you can’t pronounce? If there are lots, it probably means you’re getting more preservatives than nutrients.

Meghan Rabbitt is a senior editor for Natural Solutions magazine.