Do you know what you’re reading when you look at a nutrition label? If you don’t, you’re not alone. For many people, the information on a nutrition label can seem confusing. If you don’t understand it, how can you teach your kids how to read them and what to look for? That’s why we’re here. We spoke with Elizabeth Kasparek, a Registered Dietitian and Senior Sports Science Specialist at the Sanford Sports Science Institute, to learn more about how you can make sense of all the information you see on a nutrition label and make sure you’re sharing the right information with your family.
Servings and Portions—What’s the Difference?
Serving sizes are found at the top of the label and are measured amounts used to identify the calories and nutrients that are in a food. Examples of a serving size can be 1 slice of bread, a 6-inch tortilla, or 1 cup of milk. Some packaged foods will contain more than one serving per container so keep that in mind when you look at the nutrient measurements on the rest of the label.
Serving size is not a recommendation on how much to eat because a serving size on a nutrition label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Since your kids will most likely not be consuming 2,000 calories in a normal day, how do you know how much to serve? You’ll want to eat or serve the proper portion of food. A portion is the right amount of food for your child’s body—not too much and not too little.
“No two bodies are exactly the same, so not every portion size is the same. You can use your hand to help you decide portion sizes for your body...now and as you grow,” says Kasparek.
When looking at fat, carbohydrates, sodium, added sugar, and vitamins, the percent Daily Value (%DV) is a good guide. The percent Daily Value (%DV) will show how much of a nutrient is in a serving of food and contributes to a total daily diet. A general guide:
- 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low.
- 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high.
Choose foods that contain more of the nutrients your body needs and less of the nutrients you may want to limit. Vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron are listed on the nutrition label as these are nutrients that can often be lacking in a child’s food choices. Choose foods that are:
Higher in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.
- Lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
Sugars can be harder to understand. When you’re looking at sugar and the percent Daily Value (%DV), anything under 9 total grams of sugar is ideal, whether that’s natural or added sugars. Natural sugars are those found most commonly within fresh fruits and vegetables and work to energize your child’s body. On a nutrition label, you’ll find a line for total sugar, which includes natural and added sugars, and a line that shows how much added sugar is in the food.
Keep an eye out for added sugars as they can appear in processed foods, such as candy, cookies, sweetened beverages, jams, and ice cream. Added sugars have no nutritional value and contribute extra calories. Within the ingredient list, added sugars include ingredients that end in “ose” such as sucrose, dextrose, and maltose, but they also include high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, syrups, and fruit juice concentrates.
Nutrition labels can be tricky, and it’s hard to know what’s important and what isn’t. Learning more about nutrition that fuel your kids’ bodies is a great start to becoming a nutrition champion! Find more about the role nutrition plays in your child’s life on our website.