Nutrition Label Reading 101

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

I know you are pressed for time. I know you have your hands full trying to choose healthier foods while your kids (and spouse) are clamoring for treats and "the good-tasting stuff." I also know how daunting food labels can be when it comes to claims, hidden ingredients, and food companies focused on trying to lure you to just throw it in your cart.

Until the FDA finishes figuring out how to make labels more consumer-friendly, you need to navigate the label landscape efficiently and with targeted precision, especially in light of a study that suggests by the time a child hits kindergarten, the stage has been set for obesity. Kindergarten-aged children who are overweight are four times more likely to be obese by eighth grade, compared with their slimmer counterparts. And over 12 percent of children who enter kindergarten are already overweight.

The study also suggests that children who were large at birth and are overweight by the age they enter kindergarten, are at a high risk for obesity by age 14. This is dire. Parents need to shift and buy more foods that are simple and fresh like fruits and vegetables (canned without added sugars, and frozen are fine), lean meats and fish and beans and nuts, and minimize purchases of processed foods, making sure that the choices they do make are healthier selections with wholesome ingredients. Be prepared to spend some time when you analyze these foods, but then make them your regular selections, so shopping is quicker and more time efficient.

My goal here is to simply highlight some crucial initial assessments, so you can decide whether to further explore or ignore it and move on. I do offer some topnotch websites for detailed label assessments.

First decision

Is it a snack food (as in treat), or entrée, or side dish? Deciding the category will already help you to avoid certain choices. Processed snack foods are treats and should end up a few times a week in a child's diet. The rest of the time, snacks should mean fruits, vegetables (with healthy dips), yogurt, low-fat cheese, seeds, nuts and nut products (if there are no allergies), beans like edamame, a hard-boiled egg, a nutrition bar (about 100 calories and simple ingredients), or a grain product like a high-fiber waffle or small serving of cereal.

If it's an entree food you are examining, beware of a long ingredient list, which means chemicals and preservatives. Also beware sodium content "per serving," the kinds of fats (dangerous trans fats or saturated fat if it's fried), and look at (refined) sugars per serving.

Finally, when it comes to certain foods like crackers and chips, baked is better than fried, but the food item may still fall into the treat category, even if it's an entree or main dish because of added sauces, amount of fat, amount of sugar or sodium. I think most of us know what healthy looks like, we just want convenience too.

Sometimes you can't have both.

Front of the package claims

Beware terms like natural (dangerous caramel color can be present), high fiber (but what is the source?), good for you (what does that really mean?), lower in sodium (can still have a hefty dose of salt), whole grains (it may have some, but not a lot). Need I go on?

A fruit and vegetable does not need a label - you simply need to know if it is organic, meaning pesticide-free, which is worth the extra cost when it comes to the dirty dozen. And if you buy the raw ingredients and cook the dishes yourself, you can control how healthy and nutritious it is.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”