Taking the Confusion out of Food Label Reading

When choosing food to consume as a family, we all value fresh and wholesome nutrition, but food marketing often results in packaging which can be intentionally or unintentionally misleading.  Labels are intended to draw your attention to a product, so it can take some added effort to figure out what the true nutritional value is.

Below are some tips we find helpful to guide food choices that are healthy, safe foods for your kids & family!

When looking for food for your family, take a minute to ask yourself a few key questions about the food packaging prior to purchasing. Read over the Nutrition Facts Panel & most importantly, the Ingredients List.

For example, a product labeled as “whole grain” may have grains listed as a primary ingredient; however, there may also be several processed grains and added sugar.  If the first 5 ingredients of a product are things you recognize and mostly whole foods you may have a winner!

What to look for on the Nutrition Facts Label  

  • Serving Size: An understanding of the amount of food which makes up a serving can be found at the top of a nutrition label. If your child consumes more than 1 serving size, the amount of nutrition they are receiving increases. Therefore, the nutrient values listed on the label must be multiplied by the number of servings consumed to adequately calculate their nutrient consumption.
    • Check to see if the serving size makes sense to you! Would it be a filling snack or meal?
    • With whole foods, the serving size is less of a consideration, especially in children.
    • Kids generally eat intuitively at meals and planned snacks and know when they are full. 
  • Protein: Protein is essential for the majority of biological processes in the body! Especially for children and adolescents who are constantly growing and developing. Snacks with at least 3-8 grams of protein per serving are a great value to aim for.
    • In the US, we focus a bit too much on protein, and the truth is, if a child is eating an adequate amount of food there should not be concern for inadequate protein consumption
    • Only the pickiest of eaters or those who have medical complexities should be concerned about getting enough protein 
    • Student Athletes do need to be mindful of fueling for performance and should aim for the daily recommended protein intake for their age and gender
  • Total Fat: Natural fats or lipids are found in nature. These are nuts, seeds, avocado, and more. We need lipids for our brain health, reducing inflammation, maintaining healthy skin and hair, and sustaining energy! At times, packaged foods contain processed fats and/or oils, which are added to increase shelf life; these include saturated fats and trans fats.
    • It is important to be mindful of unnatural or processed sources of lipids, saturated, & trans fats. A great goal is to enjoy consuming unsaturated fats & lipids that come from healthy whole foods and limiting intake of processed foods that have added ingredients like oils or high values of saturated & trans fats.
    • In fresh whole foods, fruits and vegetables, children never need to be concerned about the amount of natural occurring fats. You should not limit these types of foods.  
  • Total sugars: Most labels separately list Total Sugars & Added Sugars. Use this to determine how much extra sugar is added as an ingredient (Added Sugars) and how much sugar naturally exists in the product (Total Sugars minus Added Sugars)

PRO TIP: Look for foods/snacks without added sugars or a Total Sugars amount of 10 grams or  less per serving!

  • Fiber: This is the unsung nutritional powerhouse for our microbiome and intestinal health. When reviewing a nutritional label you will find the Fiber content tucked under total carbohydrates right above the sugar content. The Daily Reference Intakes (RDI) provides the following recommendations for children and adolescents:
    • Children 1-3 years: 19 grams of fiber per day
    • Children 4-8 years: 25 grams of fiber per day
    • Boys 9-13 years: 31 grams of fiber per day
    • Girls 9-13 years: 26 grams of fiber per day
    • Boys 14-19: 38 grams of fiber per day
    • Girls 14-19: 26 grams of fiber per day

After making your way through the nutritional label, take a glance at the List of Ingredients.

What to look for on the List of Ingredients

If you have reviewed the nutritional label and this packaged item seems to have nutritious food for your family to enjoy, check out the items used to make the product. Nothing is hidden here nor should it require interpretation.

It’s best if you know each ingredient, to make sure it’s a food and not an unnatural additive. Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, are a fantastic way to avoid unknown ingredients, additives, and preservatives! 

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I recognize the ingredients used?
  2. How many ingredients are listed here?
  3. Is sugar or corn syrup listed in the first 5 ingredients?
  4. Is oil listed in the first 5 ingredients? 

Try choosing products with the least number of ingredients. 

Goal: Choose items with less than 10 ingredients  

Pro tip: Ingredients are listed in order by decreasing weights. For example, the first ingredient is what the product is mostly made of. Try to find foods in which sugar is not of the first 5 ingredients. 

Remember, it’s easy to navigate a healthy lifestyle and label reading when choosing whole food options for your family such as:  beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.  

Age specific recommendations from are available from Pediatrician, Jackie Busse, MD


For further explanation on Nutrient Label reading and ingredient list comprehension check out this FDA Factsheet.

If you or your family would like to learn more about The Retreat PVB Nutritional Support and Education contact us at wellness@retreatpvb.com!