Food nutrition labels: Are you confused?

The well-recognized “Nutrition Facts” food label currently appearing on U.S. food packages was introduced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993. It was intended to help consumers, “make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices.”

While it empowered families then, I consistently see families today having difficulty interpreting the label. I’m regularly asked by parents, “What should I focus on? Fat? Calories? Sugar? Sodium?” My answer is that you need to look at everything. That may seem daunting, but there are a few key considerations that can help you prioritize and make more informed food choices for your family.

Food focus is family-specific

In the last 20 years, research has revealed a great deal in terms of the contributors to more common diseases, such as high blood pressure and obesity, as well as the food nutrients commonly tied to those conditions. For instance, sugar is often tied to obesity and sodium is often tied to high blood pressure. This is important to keep in mind as you attempt to answer the question, “What should I focus on when it comes to food choices for my family?” If your family has a history of heart disease, then perhaps managing fat intake should be your family’s point of focus.

Once you have identified the conditions prevalent in your family, the nutrients that are the most likely to be singled out for focus are sodium, sugar or fat. But before we address details of these ingredients, it’s important to set the stage for a common pitfall for all of them – how their quantities appear on food labels.

Quantity can be sneaky

How many of you pour cereal right out of the box into a bowl? Or maybe your kids do? You might be surprised to know that taking that simple, habitual step could be tripling or quadrupling the number of calories for this single meal from 170 to 680 each morning. Without knowing it, your child could be eating three or four servings of cereal in one sitting.

Even when people are actively watching the number of calories or the level of different ingredients on food labels, they fall victim to a common misinterpretation. At the top of each nutrition label, the size of a serving and the number of servings in the container are indicated. For instance, in an average can of vegetable soup there are two servings. Under sodium, let’s say it lists 500 milligrams. But contrary to popular perception, that’s not the amount of sodium in the entire can. That’s the amount of sodium in a single serving.

Problems arise when the average person does not consider half of a can to be a full meal and, instead, consumes the entire can. That means they will have taken in 1,000 milligrams of sodium, which is close to half of the daily recommended intake. You cannot forget that this calculation generally applies to all of the listed ingredients. Quantities must be watched. In addition to measuring your servings with measuring cups, you might also think about portioning foods. For instance, you might break apart a box of cereal or a bag of chips into single servings in individual plastic bags.


The FDA recommends that adults and children consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and that certain groups limit intake to 1,500 milligrams per day. Sodium intake is high among U.S. adults and children is high according to the Centers for Disease Control and can lead to high blood pressure that can increase the chance for heart attack or stroke. Lowering blood pressure during childhood can help lower the risk for high blood pressure as an adult.

Limiting sodium is challenging in a world full of processed, fast food. Foods commonly popular with kids that can be particularly high in sodium are bread, canned soups and jarred tomato sauces for pasta, as well as processed meats such as cold cuts and hot dogs. Excessive sodium also can lurk in sweet treats like blended coffee drinks, doughnuts and cookies.


It’s no secret that sugar is a significant contributor to serious health problems for families. As a result, experts, such as the World Health Organization and American Heart Association (AHA), are adjusting their recommendations on daily intake in an attempt to help reign in consumption.

Newer AHA guidelines state that most preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than four teaspoons of added sugar a day. Children aged four to eight with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than three teaspoons or approximately 14 grams a day. Pre-teens and teens years should take in no more than five to eight teaspoons or approximately 30 grams per day. Numerous studies indicate that kids are exceeding these amounts by three-fold in younger years and progressively increasing the amount they exceed the recommended intake as they age.

Foods popular with kids today almost always have added sugar. In my PediaPath blog post on Dec. 1, I address sugary drinks as one of the biggest contributors in childhood obesity.


Fat is important for proper growth and development in children. More specifically, fat helps a child absorb vitamins, is a source for energy and helps them maintain healthy skin and hair. But not all fats are created equal and a diet in less healthy fats can have serious effects on your child’s health over their lifetime.

Mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthy when consumed at the appropriate quantities. They can be found in vegetable oil, nut oils, olive and canola oils, avocados and peanut butter. Saturated fat, which includes trans fat, can be found in certain meats, such as beef, as well as dairy products. While they present less risk to children than adults, children who are in the habit of consuming these fats early in life will likely continue, which may cause problems for them as adults.

Daily recommended fat intake levels differ for children according to their age and gender.


Daily Recommended Fat Intake on Average

2 to 3/boys and girls

33 to 62 grams

4 to 8/boys

44 to 62 grams

4 to 8/girls

42 to 58 grams

9 to 13/boys

58 to 82 grams

9 to 13/girls

50 to 70 grams

14 to 18/boys

72 to 100 grams

14 to 18/girls

58 to 82 grams

Food labels being overhauled

Research advances coupled with the evolution within the food industry toward processed foods in higher quantities have led the FDA to restructure its 20-year-old Nutrition Facts label. It’s expected to be introduced in 2018 and should present nutrition details more current with the times.

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