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Figuring Out Food Labels

You know how lots of books have a table of contents in the front? The table of contents is a list of the different things you'll read when you go through the book.

The Nutrition Facts food label on food packages is a lot like the table of contents in a book. It gives you information about the food inside, and what nutrients you'll get from the food. (Nutrients are the things in foods that help our bodies to be healthy.) It tells you about all the parts that make up the whole. 

The Nutrition Facts food label is printed somewhere on the outside of food packages, and it's usually easy to find. Fresh food that doesn't come in a package still sometimes has a Nutrition Facts label–many supermarkets list the nutrition information for the 20 most popular fruits and vegetables, as well as seafood (fish).

Most nutrients are measured in grams, also written as g. Some nutrients are measured in milligrams, written as mg. Milligrams are very tiny–there are 1,000 milligrams in a gram. Other information is given in percentages. The nutrition information is based on eating 2,000 calories (this is a measure of how much energy a food provides) in a day.

Serving Size
The serving size tells you how much of the food gives you the amounts of nutrients listed. It can be measured in lots of ways. Many times, though, serving sizes are measured in ways that help people understand how much they're eating, like in cups (one cup of cereal) or numbers (two cookies or five pretzels). If your portion size is bigger or smaller than the serving size listed on the label, use your math skills to figure out the calories and other nutrients in the amount you eat. 

The serving size for a food can depend on how much the foods weighs or how big the pieces are. For example, a serving size for cold cereals is one ounce. For some cereals that's one cup, but for others it's 3/4 cup or 1-1/4 cups. Sometimes two or three small cookies are one serving, but other times one big cookie is one serving! It can all be a little confusing, and that's why it's important to check out the serving size before digging in.

Servings per Container or Package
A serving is the measure of how much food gives you the amounts of nutrients listed. The servings per container or package tell you how many servings are in the whole package. So if a box of cookies has 21 cookies, and the cookie maker's serving size is three cookies, then there are seven servings of cookies in the box. (Math comes in handy with food labels!)

Calories and Calories From Fat
The number on the left of the label tells you how many calories are in one serving of the food. The number of calories tells you the amount of energy in the food.
The number on the right, calories from fat, tells you how many of the total calories come from the fat in the food. Calories can come from protein, carbohydrate and fat. The label lists the calories from fat (rather than listing the calories that come from the other two nutrients) because many people want to make sure they don't eat too much fat.

% Daily Value
% Daily Value tells you how much of the daily recommended amount of each nutrient is in one serving of the food. % Daily Values for total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate and fiber are based on eating 2,000 calories a day. % Daily Values for sodium and other minerals and vitamins stay the same no matter how many calories you need to eat. So if one serving of a food has a % Daily Value of 25% for carbohydrate, that means a person who eats 2,000 calories in a day will get 25% of the carbohydrates he/she needs on that day. The other 75% must come from other foods to reach the important 100%.

Quick Tip! A %DV of 5% or less means a serving of the food is low in that nutrient. A %DV of 20% or more means a serving of the food is high in that nutrient. Try to go low for things like fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and high for things like fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

Total Fat, Saturated Fat and Trans Fat
The number listed for total fat tells you how much fat is in one serving of the food. Fat is usually measured in grams. Fat is actually an important nutrient that your body uses to grow and develop. Just remember not to eat "too much of a good thing"! Listed under total fat are the amounts of saturated fat and trans fat in one serving of the food. Both saturated fat and trans fat are listed in grams. To keep your heart healthy, make sure you don't eat too much saturated fat or trans fat.

Cholesterol and Sodium
These numbers tell you how much cholesterol and sodium (a mineral that's in salt) are in one serving of this food. Cholesterol and sodium are usually measured in milligrams.

Total Carbohydrate, Fiber and Sugars
The number listed for total carbohydrate tells you the amount of carbohydrates in one serving of the food. Carbohydrates are usually measured in grams. Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy.

Listed under total carbohydrate are the amounts of fiber and sugars in one serving of the food. Fiber and sugars, which are two types of carbohydrates, are listed in grams.

Protein
This number tells you how much protein is in one serving of the food. Protein is usually measured in grams. Protein's main job is to build muscle, keep organs strong and fight off disease, but your body also can use it for energy.

Vitamin A and Vitamin C
This lists the amounts of vitamin A and vitamin C, two really important vitamins, in one serving of this food. The amount is measured in % Daily Values, so if a food has 80% of vitamin A, one serving gives you 80% of the vitamin A needed for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Food companies must list the amounts of vitamins A and C. If they want to, they also can list the amounts of other vitamins. (Cereal companies often list the amounts of other vitamins found in cereal. If the company adds any vitamins, they must list them.)

Calcium and Iron
This lists the amounts of calcium and iron, two really important minerals, in one serving of the food. The amount is measured in % Daily Values, so if a food has 10% of iron, one serving gives you 10% of the iron needed for a 2,000-calorie diet.

For most foods, food companies must list the amounts of calcium and iron. If they want to, they also can list the amounts of other minerals. (Cereal companies often list the amounts of other minerals found in cereal. If the company adds any minerals, they must list them.)

Calories per Gram
These numbers show how many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate and protein. This information is always the same for every food, and is printed on the food label so people can find it when they need it.

To learn about MyPyramid:
Conquering MyPyramid for Kids!
MyPyramid for Kids!  The Food Group Grand Tour



Reviewed by the Kidnetic.com Scientific Advisory Panel, 2006