Nutrition Label primer

Reading the Nutrition LabelI’ve been reading and hearing quite a bit about nutrition and obesity lately. Just the other day, I happened upon an article that highlighted the importance of reading the nutrition labels on the backs of food packages. Although my wife and I do read those quite frequently, a familiar sense of “uggh” ran through my head, remembering the effort it takes to read those things and digest it all, as it were. Thus, I decided that I’ll try and outline some of the more important things that we as parents need to pay attention to when pursuing the grocery aisles, buying foods labeled with the likes of, “100% fruit juice”.

I’m not a nutrition expert, I’m an image maker, so you need to ask your child’s doctor for specific recommendations, but here are the items we read and pay attention to when we purchase foods for our family:

1) Serving Size:
It is the most underestimated thing on a food label. This should be the first thing you pay attention to when scanning the nutritional label. If your child eats 2 bowls of Cheerios for breakfast and the sugar content says 6g, remember that 6g sugar is per 1 serving of the cereal. Now, check to see what the serving size is-it’s possibly equivalent to about 1 small bowl (1 cup). Now your child has just eaten 2 bowls or 2 servings, which means she just ate 12grams (6g per serving X 2 servings) of sugar-just for breakfast! You’ll need to remember to multiply all the other numbers in the label by two as well. Say, later in the evening after dinner, it’s Friday night and you feel like treating your child to a Haagen Dazs’ Sorbet. And you were really careful and gave her only a half a cup of it (who eats only half a cup of sorbet, anyway!). Your child just consumed 27g of sugar in that sorbet. So, with just the 2 small bowls of cereal and half a cup of sorbet, she’s already had 39g of sugar. Grams! What in the world is grams, you say? Well, 39grams of sugar is roughly about 8 teaspoons of sugar. Is that bad? Well, the recommended teaspoons of sugar for children between 4 and 8 is about 3 teaspoons (You can use this calculator for conversion). So, yes, 8 teaspoons of added sugar is not good, really.

2) Calories and Calories From Fat:
Based on a 2,000 calorie diet (and your active child would be around 1,600 calorie diet) 40 calories is “low”, 100 calories is “moderate”, and 400 or more is “high”. Of course, make sure to ask your doctor recommendations designed especially for your child’s age, gender, and activity level. Oh, the Calories From Fat-skip that line. It’s just confusing and doesn’t make much sense.

3) Fat-Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat:
What you need to look at here is the saturated fat-this is what gives heart diseases and strokes. There is a neat little trick to know how much is too much: the 5 and 20 rule. 5% of your daily recommendation is low and 20% is considered high, so if you’re in between those two numbers you’ll be ok. Of course, stay closer to the middle than higher end of that spectrum.

As for the Trans fat, it’s bad, so stay as low as possible. Also, if the food has less than .50g of trans fat, they are allowed to say 0 trans fat. Read the actual ingredients. If it says “partailly hydrogenated” it means there is trans fat.

4) Cholesterol:
Stick with less than 5% of your daily recommendation. And, cholesterol is only found in animal products, so if your can of almonds brags about “New Cholesterol Free Formula”, you know it’s like me advertising my photos as “Fat Free!!”.

5) Sodium:
You must read the sodium content. My kids love V8, but it has a little more sodium than I prefer, so I don’t let them drink too much of it-really depends on what else they’ve had throughout the day. So, the 5 and 20 rule surely applies here. 5% is “low” and 20% is “high”. However, we, as Americans, have begun to consume way too much sodium, so the CDC (center for Disease Control and Prevention) now recommends less than 5% of your child’s daily recommendation (remember, ask your doctor on your next visit what that is because your child’s gender, age, and even race matters here).

6) Carbohydrates:
These are actually the most important ingredient for your body to make energy for your cells (body). There are simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are found in fruits, vegetable, milk, etc., but they are also found in highly processed foods. Therefore, complex carbs is better than simple carbs. Complex carbs can be found in whole grain bread, starchy vegetables (cooked potatoes, cooked beans, cooked carrots, etc). However, if your child is diabetic you need to limit the intake of her starchy vegetables. Again, ask your child’s doctor.

7) Fiber:
Yep, apply the 5 and 20 rule here. Go for foods with higher than 20% of your daily recommendation. Here, read this blog post to see some of the little less known foods that are good source of fiber.

8) Sugar:
We touched on this a little earlier. Your child does not need more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar for the day. Ha! 4 g is about 1 teaspoon, so if a small bowl of cereal has 8g of sugar, that’s 2 teaspoons of sugar! However, not all sugar is bad. You need to avoid the added sugar, but the food labels will not tell you what these are (isn’t that convenient-since when has it been ethical to trick and confuse our fellow citizens?). You’ll need to read the ingredient and be aware of these guys: Dextrose, Lactose, Maltose, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Crystalline Fructose , Concentrated fruit juice, Brown Rice Syrup, Evaporated Cane Juice, Cane crystals, Invert sugar, Agave Nectar, Malt syrup, Fructose (sugar found in fruits, but in high concentrations this is what leads to obesity, diabetes and others). These are the culprits of added sugar. If these are at the top 3 or 4 of the ingredient list stay away!

9) Protein:
Not to worry too much about this. Our kids consume plenty of this. Kids need a total of about 10-30% of protein in their daily calories.

10) Vitamins:
Ok, now to skip the 5 and 20 rule. Go for over 20% of Vitamins A, C, Calcium or Iron. What about Vitamin B? They are good, but we don’t have a shortage of these, so don’t concern yourself too much with this.

To recap: Serving size is key-see what the serving size is and times that amount by the numbers behind the ingredients when you are serving food to your child. Stay with the 5 and 20 rule. 5 is “low” and 20 is “high”, so stay in between, except when it comes to Vitamins, go beyond 20%, and for Calories 40 is “low” 100 is “moderate”, 400 is “high”. And, read the ingredients. Dextrose, Maltose, Fructose are all sugars that you should try your best to keep your child from-especially if these are the top ingredients.

Tell us in the comments below what your experience is of reading these horribly confusing nutritional labels.