Label Reading for Kids

One of the best things we can do for our kids is to provide them with knowledge to help them make good choices.  We do this with many aspects of their life.  We educate them so they can make smart decisions when they are with their friends, doing school work, perhaps with a job if they have one.  Providing them with the information and resources needed to make good nutritional choices is also important.  We can tell them what we think they should and shouldn’t be eating, how much, how often.  Kids often respond better if they feel they have more control.  If they know how many calories or how much fat or sodium they should be consuming in a day, they can utilize this knowledge to help them make better choices.  For many adults, label reading is confusing but this skill is one way to obtain the facts needed to help make educated food selections.  Hopefully, this blog will help to clarify some things.

The first thing on a food label kids should be wary of is serving size.  Often they are not thinking in these terms when pouring a bowl of cereal and milk.  For instance, if they are having a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios (serving size 3/4 cup) with 1/2 cup of skim milk they may look at the label thinking they are consuming 150 calories.  However, they could easily be doubling that serving size of cereal (220 calories) and maybe using either using more milk or whole milk.   Their 150 calorie bowl of cereal could easily end up being 350 calories or more.  That may be absolutely fine but the important thing is they are not mislead.  You can even take out some measuring cups and help them learn what different portion sizes look like.  Soon they will be able to eyeball it.  Also, sometimes so-called “individual” packages of things often mislead us into thinking there is only one serving inside.  Double check labels to make sure it is a single serving especially with potato chips, ranch or other individually packaged dips, cookies, popcorn, and many other snack foods.

Next on the labels are the total calories.  This tells you how much “energy” you will get from one serving of food.  Remind your young one to watch foods high in calories as energy that doesn’t get used will get stored as fat.

Calories from fat tell you how many calories come from fat in a particular food.    As a general guideline, try to select foods with 5 grams or less per serving.  Also, avoid foods that contain trans fat (raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, lowers HDL (good) cholesterol) and foods that are high in saturated fat.   Total daily saturated fat intake, on average for a child, should be about 20 grams.  Overall fat intake should not exceed 30% of total caloric intake per day.

Cholesterol should not exceed 300 mg a day for adults.   If your child has risk factors for a tendency to have elevated cholesterol, it would be wise to try to limit total intake to 200 mg/day.   Cholesterol is only found in foods that come from animals so pay special attention to meat, eggs, and dairy products.

Dietary fiber is an important part of all of our diets.  It has been shown to significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain gastrointestinal diseases.  It helps in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol.  Increased intake of soluble fiber improves insulin sensitivity not only in diabetics but also non-diabetics.  Clearly you can tell I am a fiber fan!  Getting our kids to incorporate foods that contain fiber in their diets and retain this as a lifelong habit can help maintain good overall health.  That being said they should consume 10-20 grams of fiber per day (or 5 grams plus your child’s age).  Fiber is found in many foods that come from plants.  Of course, awesome sources are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Sodium is another nutrient that we sometimes don’t get concerned about until adulthood.   Although there is no set recommendation for kids, adults should be consuming no more than 2,400 mg/sodium per day.   Those with heart, kidney, and other diseases should consume much less.  For reference, one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg/sodium.  Teach your child to take note of how much sodium is in foods.  Check out the sodium in processed or convenience foods with your son or daughter – this  may really surprise them.  Also, be aware that restaurant foods tend to really overdo the sodium.

Sugar!!  How much is too much?   There has been a lot of talk regarding sugar lately.  The American Heart Association recommends children consume no more than 12 gms/day (3 teaspoons).  Realistic?  I think not.  I have seen suggested limits of 40 gms per day.  I think the key here is to check the label and BE AWARE!  For example, one half cup serving of Edy’s Cookies and Cream ice cream has 15 gms of sugar.  This already exceeds the AHA’s recommendation for the day!!!  There will be more to come on this topic…

FYI, the percent daily value on a label gives the percentage of certain nutrients that a person will eat in one serving based on a 2,000 calorie diet.   Based on this amount, 600 calories should be coming from fat.  When reading your label, if food contains 110 fat calories, you would have 490 left for the day.  Remember your child’s caloric needs may be higher or lower than 2000 per day, so just use this as a general guideline.

Finally,  when checking the ingredient list, remember items are listed in greatest quantities first.  Watch out for words such as high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, and dextrose especially when listed as one of the first few ingredients.  Also, try to avoid foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, lard,  and coconut and/or palm oils.

My basic philosophy is everything in moderation.  However, learning to read food labels provides us with information to make choices.  The earlier our kids learn this, the more likely it is to become a lifelong practice.   Remember…

“Knowledge is power.”  – Sir Francis Bacon