Just because a food is high in vitamins doesn’t mean it’s healthy overall. Sure, it could give you a shot of vitamins and minerals. But what if it’s also loaded with sugar?
Eating healthy means choosing lots of different types of food throughout the day to get all the nutrients you need, such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber, and — yes — even fat.
So how do you figure all this out? Nutrition food labels.
Your Cheat Sheet to Good Eats
Labels give you information that can help you decide what to choose as part of an overall healthy eating plan. For example, it may be OK for your child to eat a sugary cereal if he doesn’t eat much sugary stuff the rest of the day. Checking the labels on foods can alert you when a food is high in something like sugar so you can be prepared to make tradeoffs.
Food labels provide more than just nutrition facts, though. They also tell you what’s in a packaged food. Some food labels also state which country the food came from, whether the food is organic, and certain health claims.
The FDA and USDA regulate any health claims that companies make on their food labels. When a food says “light” or “low fat” on the label, it must meet strict government definitions to make that claim. Foods that are labeled “USDA organic” are required to have at least 95% organic ingredients.
Making Food Labels Work for You
The first step in making food labels work for you is to look at the entire label. If you focus on only one part — like calories or vitamins — you may not be getting the full story, like how much sugar or fat is in the product.
Here are some tips to help you get the big picture on food labels:
Always start with the serving size amount. That’s because all the information on the rest of the label — from calories to vitamins — is based on that amount.
Take note of how much a serving is (e.g., 1 cup, 8 oz). Sometimes a serving size will be way less than you’re used to eating — like only half a cup of cereal.
The label will also list how many servings are in the package. Even things that seem like they’d be a single serving, such as a bottle of juice or packet of chips, may contain more than one serving. If you eat or drink the whole thing, you’re getting more vitamins and minerals but you’re also getting way more calories, sugar, fat and other stuff that you might not want.
A calorie is a way to measure how much energy a food provides to your body. The number on the food label shows how many calories are in one serving of that food. To get a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat each day, check out the MyPlate daily checklist.
The calories from fat number tells you how many calories in that serving come from fat. For most people, about 30% of all the calories they eat in a day should come from fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, about 600 of these calories should come from fat.
More Stats to Know
Percent Daily Value
These percentages show the amounts of nutrients an average person will get from eating one serving of that food. For the purposes of food labels, the government chose an “average” person as someone who needs 2,000 calories a day. So if the label on a particular food shows it provides 25% of vitamin D, that 25% is for a person who eats 2,000 calories a day.
A kid’s diet might be more or less than 2,000 calories, based on age, sex and activity level. Likewise, kids may need more or less of certain food components and nutrients, such as calcium and iron.
Some teens — like those who are growing rapidly or very athletic — will need more calories than 2,000 a day. And many will need less. If you need more than 2,000 calories, you may need to eat more than one serving to get the same percentage of that nutrient. If your calorie needs are less, you may not need to eat as much to get that same percent.
The percent daily value amounts are based on these nutrition guidelines:
- 60% of calories should come from carbohydrates
- 30% of calories should come from fat, with most fats coming for sources of unsaturated fats
- 10% of calories should come from protein
The percent daily value information can be complicated. But one thing it makes easy is showing at a glance if a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. Here’s how:
- If a food has a daily value of 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered to be low in that nutrient.
- A food is a good source of a nutrient if the percent daily value is between 10% and 19%.
- If the food has 20% or more of the daily value, it is considered an excellent source of that nutrient.
Total fat shows how much fat is in a single serving of food. Although eating too much fat can lead to obesity and health problems, our bodies need some fat every day. Fats are an important source of energy and provide insulation and cushioning for the skin, bones and internal organs. Fat also distributes and helps the body store certain vitamins.
Fat is usually measured in grams. A good rule of thumb for keeping to the 30% calories from fat rule is to check the label and choose foods that have less than 3 grams of fat or less for every 100 calories in a serving.
Some fats are better than others. Unsaturated fats, which are found in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish, are often called “good fats.” That’s because they don’t raise cholesterol levels like saturated fats and trans fats do.
Both saturated and trans fats are considered “bad” because they can increase a person’s risk for developing heart disease. These types of fat are solid at room temperature (picture them clogging your arteries).
Saturated fats usually come from animal products like cheese, meats and ice cream. Trans fats are naturally found in these foods too, but they are also in vegetable oils that have been specially treated (hydrogenated) so they are solid at room temperature — like shortening. The amount of saturated and trans fats that are in a food are shown below total fat on the nutrition facts label. Less than 10% of calories should come from saturated fats and try to keep trans fats less than 1% of your daily calories.
Sodium is a component of salt. Almost all foods contain sodium because it adds flavor and helps preserve food. Processed, packaged and canned foods usually have more sodium than freshly made foods.
Small amounts of sodium keep proper body fluid balance. Sodium also helps the body transmit electrical signals through nerves. But too much sodium can increase water retention and blood pressure in people who are sensitive to it.
This amount covers all carbs, including fiber and sugar. The best sources of carbs are fruits and vegetables, along with whole-grain foods like cereals, breads, pasta, and brown rice. Most of your daily calorie intake should come from carbs.
Sugars are found in most foods. When a food contains lots of sugar, the calories can add up quickly. Soda, snack foods and other foods that are high in added sugar are considered “empty calories” because they usually don’t offer a lot of other nutrients.
Sugars are listed separately under Total Carbohydrates. Checking sugar quantities on labels can be really eye opening. Often there’s way more than you’d expect. For example, sometimes manufacturers cut back on fat but add sugar to keep a food tasting good. With a little label study, you may notice that some low-fat foods have nearly as many calories as their regular versions.
Fiber is not digested and helps keep your digestive system healthy. Fiber can also help reduce cholesterol levels. Best of all, fiber has no calories and it can help you feel full. So check the label and pick foods that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
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 for energy. So be sure the foods you eat give you some protein.
© 2015. Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. Used under license.