In general, when you read nutrition labels, look for foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low in sugar, sodium, cholesterol, fats (especially saturated fat and trans fat). In addition, pay attention to whether the product has chemical additives or food allergens, which you may want to minimize. In the United States, nutrition labels are divided into the following categories:
The nutritional information on a label is based on a single serving, but the container may include more than one serving. This information can be misleading unless you calculate the percentages of ingredients based on the total number of servings. For example, if a serving equals two cookies but your child eats four cookies, you must double the percentages of nutrients.
Again, be sure to calculate the total in relation to the actual number of servings consumed. A child’s ideal daily calorie intake varies by age, gender, and level of activity, ranging from 1,000–1,400 in girl toddlers to 1,800–2,000 in boys and girls aged 9 through 13.
Fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates
Pay attention to the percentages of the daily allowance rather than number of grams of each substance. On this part of the food label, below 5 percent is preferable. Since your child’s daily calorie intake is generally lower than that of an adult, high percentages of these ingredients have a stronger impact on her than they do on you.
Dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals
Look for 20 percent or more of the daily allowance in these categories.
If an ingredient list is lengthy and full of unfamiliar words that you cannot pronounce, that is an indicator that it is not a whole food. Here are some tips for understanding ingredients lists:
- Ingredients are listed according to the percentage of the whole product that they represent. For example, if sugar is listed first, that means it is the main ingredient. If it is listed near the end, it represents a less significant portion of the total.
- The fewer ingredients, the better.
- If preservatives are added to a product, the manufacturer is required to explain what the preservative does. For example, it may say, “ascorbic acid to promote color retention.”
- Subingredients do not have to be listed on an ingredient list. For example, bread may contain margarine that has been colored with a food coloring that is not mentioned on the label because it is not considered to have a “functional” effect on the bread; however, the oil in the margarine would be listed because it is considered to have a functional effect. Foods may also be treated with substances that prevent them from sticking to equipment. Those substances are not required to be included in the ingredients list.
- Manufacturers protect their proprietary recipes by listing “natural ingredients” collectively. This term typically refers to a blend of herbs and spices.
Food Allergen Labels
Since 2006, U.S. food manufacturers have been required to declare on their packaging whether their product contains any of the eight major food allergens (which account for 90 percent of all food allergies) or an ingredient or protein derived from them: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans. Particles in trace amounts, such as whey powder, may still make their way into a food.
Food manufacturers are not required to declare potential allergens that may “accidentally” make it into a product (by being produced on the same machine or in the same factory), but many manufacturers do so voluntarily—for instance, you may see a label that states, “May contain traces of peanuts” or “Made in a factory that also produces peanuts.”
There is no standard that such labels must follow; according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, there are over 30 different ways that such trace allergens can be declared on a package. According to a 2007 study by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, only 7 percent of products that provided the voluntary warning actually contain the allergen.