Figuring out how to read a food/nutrition label can seem a daunting task. But when you know what to look for, it’s quick, easy and totally doable.
First, look at the top of the food label at Serving Size. This will tell you the amount of food they are measuring. This is also where companies try to trick us! A lot of sports drinks, cookies and (seemingly) single serving items will actually be split into two servings so that the company can show a lower calorie, sugar, and sodium (salt) content.
Next, choose the 3 items that you are most concerned about. My 3 items change depending on the product I am buying. I generally want to know the calories and sugar content along with the list of ingredients. If it’s not an item where I’m concerned about the sugar content (such as soup) then I check sodium (salt) content. You may be concerned with the fat, fiber or protein content.
An Example, Please
How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
Let’s choose a cereal for our kids. Cereal is an easy one because it only has two items to be concerned with- sugar content and ingredients. Depending on who is eating the cereal, you may also like to know the amount of sodium (salt content), fiber or calories.
We’ve already learned that Serving Size is first. Eight ounces equals a cup and 1 small bowl of cereal is usually around a cup.
Next, I scan down until I see “sugar”. If I am buying a breakfast cereal I try to keep the sugar content at less than 6 grams per cup of cereal. If I am buying what I call a “dessert cereal” (used as a dessert, not a meal choice) then I’ll go up to 10. Yep, I know this cuts out most of the cereal out there. Remember, most of us eat more than one bowl of cereal and then with the addition of milk we’ve added another 12 grams of sugar (albeit natural) per 8oz. As with all milk products, allowing a bit of fat, such as lowfat (vs nonfat), makes the milk taste sweeter and aides the vitamins in absorption.
If the sugar content is to my liking I then look at the ingredient list. I scan the label for High Fructose Corn Syrup. If that is on the list I immediately put it back on the shelf. If it says “sugar, cane sugar, honey, or sucrose (a fancy word for sugar)” then I continue on down the ingredient list.
I am not a fan of cottonseed oil, soybean oil, or any oil that has the word “hydrogenated” in front of it. This is because both cotton and soy are among the top 5 contenders for “most highly sprayed crop.” They are also both GMO (genetically modified) unless organic. “Hydrogenated” basically means that it’s an unhealthy fat. The kind that plugs up arteries and other important valves in the body. If it lists any of those, back on the shelf it goes.
Most of the name brand cereals will list “Enriched (Bleached) Flour” as their first ingredient. It is preferable to have something like “Whole Oat Flour” listed as Enriched Bleached Flour is just highly refined white flour which has been striped of just about any nutritional value. Most organic cereals from companies such as Cascadian Farms will use whole grains and are your best bet if you are on a “grab and go” shopping excursion. Look in the health food section and stock up when they’re on sale. Coupons are also often available via the companies websites.
Make it easy, skip the regular cereal isle and go down the health food isle instead.
If you decide to shop the health food isle then you are down to just serving size and sugar content as a general rule. Be careful though, just because it’s organic doesn’t mean its low in sugar.
Get your kids to help
My kids know how to check a label and have fun going down the isle to find a cereal which mom will say “yes” to. The other day I took my son to Trader Joe’s. He asked if he could get a dessert cereal. I said “hmmm, I don’t know….” As he interrupted with “It’s only got 10 grams of sugar!” We hadn’t had this particular cereal in months and he remembered the sugar content! It’s been a popular dessert many nights since!
“But it isn’t fun”
If your kids are used to multi-colored or “fun” cereal there is hope. Try Gorilla Crunch or another cereal. These are much healthier choices and a good way to ween your child off of the sugar-laden name brand cereals. If you’re on a budget just buy a plain cereal (such as O’s) and let your kids add a touch of honey or maple syrup. This saves money and keeps you in control of how much sugar your kids are getting.
A few of our favorites:
Cascadian Farms O’s
Cascadian Farms Honey Nut O’s are a great dessert cereal choice with only 8 grams of sugar per cup!
Cascadian Farms Clifford Crunch
Kashi Heart to Heart
Trader Joe’s O’s
Plain oatmeal topped with dried cherries, apricots, cranberries, or raisins. Swirl in some half and half for a bit of creaminess. (*Hint- Add a touch of salt- you’ll need less sweetener)
Reading a Nutrition Facts Label doesn’t have to be confusing. Just knowing what you’re looking for makes a quick and easy scan totally doable. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
I’d love to know how many of you already read a nutrition facts label and what you look for. Leave me a comment, I read every one!