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MEGAN MONDAY – Cracking the Nutrition Label Code – How to Decipher What’s In Your Food

Posted Aug 12 2013 1:43pm

nutrition label Last week, I went into detail about how to make sense out of particular nutrition claims plastered over many foods found in stores today. However, the label we should be paying most attention to EVERY time we consider choosing a food is the “Nutrition Facts” label (and when I quote my famous line, “Read the label!” this is what I am referring to, in addition to the ingredients list). Actually understanding what the numbers, categories, and percentages mean on these labels can seem like planning for a trip to Mars with the level of confusion that arises in most cases. If you go to the FDA’s website for help, you are thwarted to an endless page full of graphs, comparisons, and confusing (well, at least I think so) explanations. In many cases when buying or choosing food, we just quickly glance to see how much of a particular macronutrient (i.e. fat, carbohydrate, protein) or micronutrient (i.e. vitamins) are present. A word of caution though – just because something may seem like it has too much of this or too little of that in it may actually be misleading, as wouldn’t you guess it, Nutrition Labels are actually designed to benefit the food manufacturers, not the consumer. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle has done extensive research on this topic, as noted in her book, “What to Eat” “Until 1990, the food industry fought all attempts to require mandatory labeling of packaged foods. Companies only had to label nutrition information if vitamins or minerals were added of if the product label claimed that it contained these nutrients.” In addition, she notes how misleading nutrition labels can be to make a product more appealing to consumers at a quick glance – “If a food looks like it should have more calories than is stated on the label, it probably does.”
Something else to consider is that the Nutrition Facts labels is really geared for adults – the Daily Value percentage amounts of the ingredients are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which exceeds most nutritional needs for children. A child’s diet might be more or less than 2,000 calories, taking into account age, gender, and activity level. Children may also require more or less of a particular nutrient, such as calcium and iron (children need to ensure they get adequate amounts of both).

Let’s start the breakdown in easy-to-follow guidelines:

1. SERVING SIZE – Start here since this tells you what everything else on the label is based off of. Is it an entire package? Is it just a cup? Do you have to divide the serving up to account for a children’s serving? Do you tend to eat more of what’s listed? Remember that many times, food companies will make the serving size unreasonably small to reflect “healthy” looking numbers in the fat and calories sections – just be aware of this so you don’t accidentally overindulge. In most cases, you’ll have to divide for children’s servings (unless it’s a children’s product that already takes into account the appropriate serving size, like MySuperFoods Super Snacks!). Be prepared to multiply the amounts in the nutrition label if the serving size is small and you know you will be eating more than what’s accounted for on the list. For example, many beverages, like a 16-ounce bottle of naturally flavored iced tea, actually have two servings per container. Therefore, you’ll have to double all the numbers if you end up drinking the whole thing. The label also tells you how many servings are contained in the actual package of food, so be sure to take that into consideration if you are making one whole package to portion out to several people. It’s OK to break out a calculator when dealing with food labels. No judgment here.

2. CALORIES (& CALORIES FROM FAT) – Calories measure how much energy is in the food, as calories can come from fats, carbohydrates, or protein. Unfortunately, many people consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for other nutrients. For adults, this is important, as we do not want to be consuming more calories than our bodies require to burn for daily function, as this can lead to weight gain.

However, and more importantly, as parents, calorie content is one of the least important numbers to pay attention to on the nutrition label for children under the age of 5 years old and at a normal weight. Believe it or not, young children are very in-tune to their actual hunger levels than adults are (who may eat out of habit, emotional influences, cravings, or boredom) and can regulate their own calories well.

For school-age kids (and younger, if they’re overweight) — you’ll want to pay closer attention to how many calories are consumed, so use this guide set by the ADA. 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.

General Guide to Calories

o 40 Calories is low
o 100 Calories is moderate
o 400 Calories or more is high

CALORIES FROM FAT – If you notice right next to the calories listed on the left-hand side of the label is the amount of calories from fat. This is important to check and monitor for adolescents and adults because it’s good to limit fat intake to about 30% or less of the calories they eat. However, children can get a little more of their daily calories from fat (some parents still stick around to 30%, but 35% is fine). 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. The actual math? Divide the calories from fat by the total amount of calories and multiply by 100  this will give you the percentage of calories from fat. Beware that if something is relatively low-fat, it may not be low in calories!

3. The nutrients that should be LIMITED are listed first right under the calorie breakdown (see diagram below). They are: fats (total, saturated, and trans), cholesterol, and sodium. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure. Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

While we know some very healthy foods (such as avocados and nuts) contain “high” amounts of fat, we need to be aware of the “healthy” balance of good fats vs. bad fats in our diet….and moderation is key…even with the healthy fats! Things can get tricky in this section, however, as you are to compare the amounts of these nutrients to their DAILY VALUES (which are the upper limits recommended for diets that contain 2,000 calories a day  these limits are given at the bottom of the nutrition label in the footnote for diets containing 2,000 or 2,500 calories a day  the label gives a percent of the Daily Value)
a. FAT – Fat is an important nutrient that your body uses for growth and development, but you don’t want to eat too much. We all need some fat to absorb vitamins, help our internal organs work efficiently, and keep us feeling full after meals, in addition to helping food burn more slowly and help reduce the rate at which sugar is absorbed in the bloodstream (to help prevent sugar “highs” and “crashes”) — and fat is especially important for kids’ brain development (which is why children under the age of 2 should be eating full-fat versions of milk, dairy, etc.). As parents and caregivers, it’s imperative that we are cautious of the type of fat. The different kinds of fat, such as saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat, will be listed separately on the nutrition label. When you check out a label, look for a low saturated-fat content and ideally, 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.

As mentioned earlier, calories from fat should not add up to more than 20 percent of the total number of calories. Like I always say, READ THE INGREDIENTS! Items are listed in descending order by weight, so the position of an item indicates whether there’s a little of it or a lot. Pay close attention to make sure you are not eating hydrogenated or highly saturated fats among the first five items—meaning butter, lard, cocoa butter, palm oil, palm kernel oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, or shortening.

b. CHOLESTEROL – I have mentioned before that despite its bad rep, both children and adults need to take in around 300 mg of cholesterol per day to ensure optimal health (namely brain health!). Our bodies make some cholesterol, but we still need to ingest enough to adequately supply our bodies the amount it needs to make the myelin sheath that surrounds the body’s nerves, thus protecting neurological health. Cholesterol is only found in ANIMAL PRODUCTS (plants cannot make cholesterol), so look for it on any product made with animal by-products like meat, dairy, eggs, etc. Moderation is key, however, as it’s true that too much cholesterol can build up in the arteries and cause heart disease (and experts are now seeing through research that trans and saturated fats play a bigger role in raising blood cholesterol than does the actual cholesterol in food). A good rule of thumb? Aim for foods low in cholesterol, but you don’t have to avoid it at all costs (as in eggs – when rumors about cholesterol being the main culprit for heart disease sprung up, many people stopped eating eggs, which are a nutrient powerhouse for non-vegans).

c. SODIUM – Sodium, a.k.a. “salt” as we know it may make our food taste good, but in reality, too much is linked to numerous health issues such as hypertension, bloating/water retention, stress on our kidneys, heart disease, and can lead to major sugar cravings. Sodium intake has skyrocketed in the US due to food preparation and preservation practices. On average, we consume on average 1,000 mg more of sodium a day than we should be…thanks to the amount of processed foods and for those who eat out, restaurant food is typically highest in sodium. My word of advice? Make as many home-cooked meals as possible…or really monitor what prepared foods you buy. Many low-sodium choices are available now.

In general, the number of milligrams of sodium per serving should be less than the number of calories per serving. The average adult woman eats roughly 2,000 calories a day, and shouldn’t consume more than about 2,000 milligrams of sodium a day (ideally, 1,500 milligrams a day). So if you can beat that 1:1 ratio with each item you eat, you’ll stay under your salt limit. For children, it’s a different story. Since their bodies are smaller and their kidneys have to process much harder, daily intake should be even lower.
The daily recommended allowance for kids (which I think is even too high, in my own opinion) 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

4. TOTAL CARBOHYDRATES – Remember my 3-part article special on carbohydrates a few months ago? Well, if so, then you remember that carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy and can be obtained from sugar, fiber, or starch. When looking at the TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE content on a nutrition label, this number tells you how many carbohydrate grams are in one serving of food. This total is broken down into grams of sugar and grams of dietary fiber. 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, or best, non-existent (in my opinion).

As Marion Nestle points out in her book, something else to be aware of – the FDA makes no recommendation about carbohydrates other than to set the Daily Value for total carbohydrate at 300 grams for diets containing 2,000 calories (this would be less for children). While we know that some carbs are better to eat than others (fibers and whole grains versus sugars), the FDA chose to lump FIVE kinds of carbohydrates together in one 300 gram category - Whole grains (healthy if non-GMO and for those without gluten sensitivities)
- Refined grains (not great, as they lack natural health benefits)
- Natural sugars (not terrible because they come in foods that contain many other nutrients)
- Added sugars (should be avoided because they add calories, no other nutrients, and can contribute towards weight gain, diabetes, cravings, sugar imbalances, and other health complications)
- Fiber (very good for you…but avoid the processed “filler”-types)

What bothers me most about this list is that due to food politics, the FDA clumped processed sugars in with naturally-occurring sugars, rather than calling for them to be listed separately.
• SUGARS – This section can get a little tricky, as many foods contain natural sugars (like lactose in milk and fructose in fruit). Some nutrition experts advise to ignore the grams of sugar because that number doesn’t tell you what type of sugar the product contains – natural or added/processed. Definitely check the ingredients and keep a mindful eye – there shouldn’t be any added sugars in the first three to five spots. That includes brown sugar, invert sugar, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, honey, sucrose, evaporated cane juice, and high-fructose corn syrup. Personally, as a parent, I think it IS important to keep track of how many grams of sugar your little one(s) are taking in through the day, as I like to limit my son’s amount to 20-30g PER DAY.
• FIBER – fiber only comes from food plants – fruits, vegetables, and grains – never from meat or dairy foods. You should eat as much fiber as possible to maintain digestive and intestinal health. Take note when looking at grains for a fiber source – If the product contains grains, it’s better if they’re whole (containing all their naturally occurring nutrients) than processed. Scan the ingredients for these words: “cracked,” “rolled,” “stone-ground,” “crushed,” “graham,” and, of course, “whole.” (These are terms used to describe ingredients made from an entire grain kernel.) Another good test: Look for at least three grams of dietary fiber per 100 calories. While it’s higher than the daily recommended values, I suggest we aim for at least 30 grams of fiber a day for women and 45 for men (children may be a little less, as fiber is more filling and can cause sensitive reactions to digestion).

5. PROTEIN – Protein is necessary for your body to build and repair essential body parts such as muscles, blood, and organs. However, we eat so much of it in our diets that it’s not much of a dietary concern. The FDA lists protein on the label as general interest, but makes no recommendation for intake and provides no Daily Value. As long as you are getting enough calories from a variety of foods per day, it is assumed that your protein intake is suitable. I highly recommend steering away from foods that have marketing claims for “Protein-Rich” foods (i.e. Protein shakes or Special K products like cereals and shakes… it’s full of processed isolated proteins that I personally think are not healthy to take in, as they are so processed). Here is a general guideline for how much individuals should be taking in each day - Infants require about 10 grams a day.
- Teenage boys need up to 52 grams a day.
- Teenage girls need 46 grams a day.
- Adult men need about 56 grams a day.
- Adult women need about 46 grams a day.
- One important exception is pregnant or lactating women: The recommended intake for them rises to 71 grams of protein a day.

6. THE “EAT MORE” NUTRIENTS – This section is dedicated to vitamins, minerals, (and fiber) and how more should be eaten because they are essential for growing bodies and maintaining health. While the ideal situation would be your family eats an array of healthy foods to obtain essential and beneficial vitamins and minerals, we know that can be hard. 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. Some foods are enriched with these nutrients to help boost their nutritional profile and add vitamins and minerals to help individuals meet their daily needs.

Regarding this section of the nutrition label, the FDA’s website notes:

“Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

7. %DAILY VALUE – this section (found in the “Footnotes”/end of the nutrition label…..who actually reads this part anyway!?!?) basically describes whether or not the item is a good source of a particular nutrient. Remember that the percentages are keyed to a 2,000-calorie diet, so a quick guide 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.

8. INGREDIENT LIST – One of the most important parts of the nutrition label, this actually lists what the food contains or is made from. Keep your eyes open for questionable ingredients like processed sugars, unhealthy fats, artificial colors or flavorings, or unhealthy preservatives. Remember that 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 good deal of it. The food will contain smaller amounts of the ingredients mentioned at the end of the list. With that in mind, check ingredient lists to see where sugar appears. Limit foods that mention sugar in the first few ingredients because that means that it is a sugary food.

OK, got all of that?!? While your head may be spinning (or pointed down after falling asleep from trying to take all of this thrilling information in), my hopes are that you now have a little clearer understanding of what the nutrition label is, how to break it down, and what to watch out for when interpreting a food’s nutritional profile. While whole, fresh, non-processed foods like fruits and veggies are best (I call them the “non-food label foods”), be a super food sleuth when at the grocery store and choose wisely, especially for your children. I personally go straight to the sugar content on the nutrition label, while others may aim for something else. Try to get your children involved in learning about and how to read nutrition labels, too – empower them with the knowledge to make healthy eating choices. I listed some websites below that have some fun games and ideas to get kids involved with exploring nutrition labels.

Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC:


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