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Nutrient Series: Understanding Food Labels

Learning how to interpret nutrition labels is as important as knowing how to build a nutritious menu. In fact, the information presented can help you identify and plan the nutrients you put into each meal!

The Food and Drug Administration regulates nutrition facts labels. These labels must include the following information:

  • A statement of identity. This descotes the product, such as “tomato and mushroom pasta sauce,” not just ”pasta sauce.” The first word in the description is the main ingredient. If the product label read “mushroom and tomato pasta sauce,” it would have a very different nutrient label.
  • The content’s net weight in ounces, pounds and/or grams.
  • The name and address of the manufacturer, packing plant or distributor.
  • Ingredients list.
  • Nutrition information.

It’s the back label that gives us the nutrient information. Here’s an example of one:

Sample back label that gives us the nutrient information.(

This is a standard American nutrition label for boxed macaroni and cheese. At the top it shows the serving size and number of servings per box. It’s important to read this to know what’s considered a serving portion, which varies from food to food. That bag of trail mix you ate in the car on the way to work may have had as many as 13 servings!

As you read down the label, you can see that a serving size contains 250 calories. So if little Johnny eats the whole box for lunch, he’s actually consuming 500 calories just in mac and cheese.

This part of the label also tells you the overall fat percentage of the food. In this case, fat is 44 percent of the total energy amount. Since only 30 percent of fat per day is recommended, Johnny has already overeaten his fats – and just in a single meal! This is allowable once in a while, but what if that is all Johnny will eat?

The next area of the label contains information about nutrients that should be limited, and it breaks down the specific fat types. In another article in this series (“Fats”), I noted that we need to decrease the amount of saturated fats in our diets. This area tells us exactly how much “SatFat” is in each serving.

Next on this line is an estimate of the percentage of saturated fats in a serving of mac and cheese based on a 2,000 calorie diet. If you look at the quick guide next to the label, you can see that 15 percent is on the higher side, meaning it’s considered a higher fat food. (By the way, most boxed mac and cheese preparations call for butter or margarine and 2 percent milk. You can reduce the fat by changing the recipe from 4 tablespoons of butter to 2 teaspoons and using fat free milk instead of 2 percent or whole milk. Most kids can’t tell the difference.)

You’ll also notice that this particular label shows this product to have trans fats. In the column listing the percentage of daily value this contributes to your diet, you’ll see nothing listed. That’s because we don’t need, nor should we have, trans fats in our diet. Cholesterol and sodium, both nutrients that should be limited, are listed here as well.

The next section of the label lists carbohydrate and protein values. Remember that carbohydrates include grains, cereals, pastas and rice: foods that are good for you and contain most of our vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates, like the fats above, are further broken down to give the amount of fiber and sugars. The higher the fiber the better. Anything over 4 grams is pretty good! The sugars listing tells us how much sugar, natural and added, is found in a serving of this product. If you read my article about proteins, that listing needs no explanation.

You will notice that there is a percent daily value for total carbohydrates and fiber, but not for sugar and protein. That’s because sugar by itself is not a necessary nutrient and protein requirements are based on age and body weight.

The third section lists any significant vitamins and minerals found in this food based on the serving size. The iron percentage looks pretty high, so if Johnny eats the whole box by himself, he’ll at least get some iron!

Finally, the footnote at the bottom of the label is a general guide of the nutrients recommended for a 2,000 calorie diet. But remember, 2,000 calories might not be the appropriate daily amount for you or your child.

So what have we learned from reading this label? Little Johnny is eating a food high in calories and high in fat. It has lots of carbohydrates but no fiber. It isn’t particularly high in protein, though it has a good deal of iron.

The problem is, Johnny loves mac and cheese.

So what do you do? Make your own! Use whole-wheat macaroni, make a basic white sauce using whole-wheat flour and skim milk, and add your own cheese. The whole-wheat macaroni and flour will add fiber and more B vitamins. The white sauce base requires less fat and the cheese contains more protein than powdered cheese with fillers. It takes about the same time to prepare and will probably taste better. Little Johnny will love it!

Next in the Nutrient Series: Vitamins