Decoding Food Labels

Feeding your family healthy foods seems easy, right? But what if, lurking on all of those food labels, are chemicals and harmful additives hiding in plain site? Learning how to decode food labels can be the easiest way to know what your family is eating and to find the healthiest options for everyone in your family.

Diet can have a huge effect on your child’s behavior. It can cause worsening ADHD, it can lead to restlessness and mood swings, and can cause your child to act in ways they normally wouldn’t. Some of the easiest ways to fix these common problems are through food, and decoding food labels is the first step to getting your kids back on track.

What is on a Food Label?

Looking at a food label might seem like a whole other language, and it may involve a little bit of math on your part, but reading the labels can be a huge factor in staying healthy. Each label has a serving size and number of servings, a column of information — “% Daily Value” — that shows what portion of the amount of daily recommended nutrients the product provides, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and information about total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, fiber, and other nutrients. It also includes a list of ingredients and health claims.

The first step in reading the food label should be to note the calories and calories from fat. Remember, these are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which may not be the amount of calories that a child needs. According to, dietitians generally recommend that adults consume no more than 30% of calories come from fat over the course of the day. That means that if the food you eat over the course of a day contains 2,000 calories total, no more than 600 of these should come from fat. Children 1-3 years old should get 30%-40% of calories from fat; kids and teens 4-18 years old should get 25%-30% of calories from fat.

The FDA has recently approved a new nutrition panel that highlights the level of sugar in each food as well. The new labeling is part of an overhaul on food labeling and will show how many added sugars are in each food as well as the percent of sugars that you should consume in a day. Making sure to keep added sugar intake down and to keep low sugar percentages is another important thing to look for on the label before you put the food into your cart. 

How Many Nutrients are Actually Good?
According to the FDA, it is important to limit total fat including saturated and trans fat, cholestoral, and sodium. Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much of these. 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.

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. For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages. 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.

You will also notice the letters DV and %DV on the label. The DV is the actual daily value of the product based on a 2,000 calorie diet. For example, the label may say “Saturated Fat DV 65g” which means that there are 65 grams of saturated fat in the food. However, %DV is the percentage of your daily allotted value per 2000 calories. For example, if the %DV for saturated fat is 40%, it is very high in saturated fat and you should limit your intake for the rest of the day.

To start teaching your kids how to read food labels, the FDA has a website with quizzes to help you learn what each value stands for, and they also have formulas you can use if you need to figure out values on the go. It is always a good idea to start teaching your kids to read the labels with you so that they also know what to look for when they are choosing healthy foods.

Beware of “Diet” and “Low-Fat” Labeling
We have all been guilty of it. We pick up a back of “low-fat” potato chips or “fat free” ice cream and we feel pretty good about our choice to do so. But, according to, even if a food is low in fat, the food may not necessarily be low in calories or nutritious. Even a low-fat food can be high in sugar. Food companies also may make claims such as “no cholesterol,” but that does not necessarily mean the product is low in fat.

It is also important when looking at low-fat or diet options, to consider the serving size. At the top of each food label is an amount listing for serving size. These are determined by the food manufacturer, and they’re based on the amount that people generally eat. All of the information about the nutritional value of the food that is listed on the label is given according to the serving size. So if a serving size is 2 crackers and you eat 4 crackers — which would be two servings — you need to double all of the nutrition information. The number of servings per container tells you how many serving sizes are in the whole package.

There are many instances where something seems healthier because the serving size is much smaller than most people would eat, so it is especially important to pay attention to the serving size on everything you eat.

As a rule of thumb, I try to stay away from anything on a label that I can’t pronounce. There are tons of dyes and chemicals you will see listed in the ingredients sections, and, while we do live in the age of Google where you can find out what each thing is, most of us simply don’t have time for that. So rather than trying to decode some of the more cryptic ingredients I always recommend eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables and the types of things that don’t need a label at all.

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