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Label Detective: How to Choose the Best Foods for Your Family

April 12, 2013 | Amelia Winslow

Label Detective: How to Interpret the Facts and Choose the Best Foods for Your Family

When you’re a parent, stocking your kitchen with healthy foods is a big part of your job. After all, as nutrition experts remind us: Your pantry is your child’s grocery store!

Unfortunately, figuring out what’s healthy or not is challenging. With so many claims on packages and confusing terms on labels, even the most educated parent may get overwhelmed by the many products available in modern supermarkets.

Here is a guide to make reading labels easier. Once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to quickly and easily choose the best foods for the whole family.

On the Nutrition Facts Label, check out the…

Serving size: The serving size listed on a package may be less or more than your child eats in a sitting, so it’s important to be aware of how much food constitutes a serving (e.g. half a cup, 10 crackers, one ounce) and how many servings come in a given container of food. The nutrition facts listed are for one serving of food, so if your child eats an entire bag of something and there are three servings in the bag, you must multiply everything on the label by three to determine the calories, fat, fiber, protein and other nutrients that were eaten.

Fiber: When choosing a grain-based product, look at the dietary fiber which help you determine whether a product is whole grain. Whole grain cereals, breads and crackers should have about three to four grams of fiber per 100 calories. A lower amount means that the product is highly refined, and a much higher amount might be a sign of synthetic or added fiber. This type is not as nutritious as the naturally-occurring kind and is liable to cause symptoms like gas or bloating.

Protein: Most meals and snacks should be a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, since this combination satisfies hunger and helps keep energy levels even. There’s no particular number to look for when it comes to grams of protein, but some protein should be present in most foods. For example, a four-ounce serving of yogurt (for a baby, toddler or child) should have about four to six grams of protein.

Sugar: The grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts Label can be misleading, because naturally-occurring sugar in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) will appear here and perhaps make a food seem less healthy than it really is. When you’re choosing foods that have dairy or fruit in them (milk, yogurt, granola bars, cereal, etc.), look for the following:

  • Sugar is not the first ingredient
  • The food also contains protein and fat, since these two nutrients help the body to absorb sugar at a slower, healthier rate
  • The product is organic, so you know the sugar does not come from a genetically modified ingredient.

Sodium: Too much sodium is unhealthy for babies, children and adults. You can limit the amount of sodium in your child’s diet by choosing real, whole foods for the majority of meals and snacks. Save salty packaged snack foods, boxed or frozen prepared meals and restaurant food as a rare treat.

Look for these terms on the package…

USDA Organic seal: Organic food is better for your family and better for the environment. Buying foods and other products with the green USDA Organic seal not only provides your family with a higher quality product, it also allows you to show your support for sustainable farming.

Non-GMO Project verified symbol: There is no law requiring companies to say whether their ingredients come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), so many companies choose to become independently verified by the Non-GMO Project. When you see this on a package label, you can be confident that no GMOs are included. (Organic products, by definition, do not contain GMOs). Though the FDA claims that GMOs are safe, research from other countries has shown that certain GMOs may harm to human health.

No artificial colors: Petroleum-based artificial colors - Red 40, Yellow 5 & 6, and Blue 1 & 2, Green 3 and Orange B - have been linked to behavioral disorders in children. Avoid foods that have these colors on the ingredients list, and instead choose foods that are naturally colored or have no added coloring at all. Natural colorings - which are safe - that you might see on the ingredients list: beet or black currant juice concentrate, carrot or radish juice concentrate, turmeric and annatto extract.

No artificial flavors: With so many delicious natural flavors in the world, why buy food that was flavored in a chemistry lab? Avoid foods that have the words “artificially flavored,” or “natural and artificial flavors” on the box or ingredients list. Instead, choose naturally flavored food so your children can enjoy something real - like fruit and vegetable flavors - rather than something fake.


While there are many other claims you will see on food packages, paying special attention to the terms and ingredients listed above will ensure that the food you purchase is most nutritious for your family.


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