guest contributor: Gabriella A.
One of the first steps towards eating healthy and obtaining an understanding of
food starts with reading food labels on packaged goods.
Reading food labels will make it much easier for you to compare the products and find
the foods that have the nutritional value your body needs to grow and sustain itself.
Having this practical, everyday life-skill will help you and your family make healthy
choices about the foods you are buying and putting into your bodies.
Eating healthy begins with an understanding of nutrition, what’s in the food and
how it’s made. You know how books have a table of contents that explains what’s
inside? Or maybe you have a lego set that came with a diagram identifying each small
piece and instructions on how to put the separate parts together.
Let’s go down the label and look at each section.
- Serving Size: 1 oz. Located at the top of the label, this tells you the amount of food used to
measure all the other numbers on the label. The serving size for this food is 1 ounce, which
equals about 15 chips.
- Servings Per Container: About 12. This tells you how many servings are in the bag. In this
case, it says “about 12,” but since the serving size is 1 ounce, and the bag is over 12 ounces, a
little math will tell you that there are really MORE than twelve servings in the bag. Okay, so what
does it mean? Well, since most people will eat more than 1 ounce (15 chips) and the numbers
listed only apply to one ounce, that means you’re really getting more than the label says! So if
the label says 140 calories per serving, and you eat 1/3 of the whole bag, you’re really eating
560 calories! Remember: A lot of food companies will make their food servings small so it looks
like the food is healthier than it really is. Make sure you always look at how many servings are in
a bag, box, or can of food BEFORE you look at the rest of the numbers. Depending on how
much of the food you eat, you may have to double or triple the numbers on the label.
- Calories: One Serving, 140 (Whole Bag, 1680). A calorie is a unit of energy, and
different foods contain different amounts of calories. The average person needs about 2,000
calories to have enough energy for the day, and extra calories are usually stored as body fat.
Since a 1/3 of this snack has 560 calories, eating that much will account for 28% of all the
calories you should eat in the day. That seems like an awful lot for a little bit of snacks!
- Calories from Fat: One Serving, 60 (Whole Bag, 720). This tells you how many of the food’s
calories come from fat. In this case, 60 of the 140 calories in a serving of the sun chips come
from fat. That’s a lot-almost 43%! The experts say you should only get about 30% of your daily
calories from fat, which means this snack is very high in fat and probably not something you
want to eat very often. Dr. Katherine Zeratsky from the Mayo Clinic said that: “Dietary
guidelines suggest that healthy adults generally limit dietary fat to no more than 20 to 35 percent
of total daily calories”.
The next section of the label lists the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates,
proteins, and vitamins and minerals this snack offers, compared to how much of these things
you need each day. When reading these amounts, you should pay more attention to the
percentages than to the grams. If a food has:
• 5% or less of a nutrient, it’s considered a poor source of that nutrient.
• 10-20% of your daily recommended amount of a nutrient, it’s a good source of that nutrient.
• More than 20%, it’s high in that nutrient.
Reading Food Labels: Let’s look at a few important listings
- Total Fat: One Serving, 3% (Whole Bag, 43%). We need some fat in our diets, because it’s
important for our skin and organs and a good source of energy. But too much fat can lead to
weight gain and all the health problems that come with being overweight. If you eat 1/3 of this
bag of sun chips as a snack, you’re getting 112 grams of fat, which represents 43% of a 2,000
calorie diet. Since you’ll probably be getting fat from other sources during the day, this is
probably too much from a bag of snacks. This food is obviously high in fat, so it’s not a smart
snack choice. Remember to also check amounts and percentages of Saturated Fat and Trans
Fat. These are types of fat than can be bad for you and lead to clogged arteries and heart
problems, so you want to see small amounts and small percentages of these on most of your
- Sodium: One Serving, 5% (1/3 of Bag, 60%). Sodium is basically the same as salt. Your
body needs sodium in very small amounts, but too much can be unhealthy. Because sodium is
added to many foods already, most of us get way more sodium than we need. In the case of
these chips, this 1/3 of a bag contains 60% of the sodium you should get in a day, which means
it’s got a whole lot of salt for such a small amount of food.
- Total Carbohydrates: One Serving, 6% (Whole Bag, 72%). Your body needs plenty of
carbohydrates for energy. 1/3 of this bag of sun chips gives you 24% of the carbs you need in
the day, so it looks like it’s a good source of them. But when you look at the label as a whole,
you will see that to get these carbs, you also have to eat lots of calories, gobs of fat, and tons of
salt. It would be much smarter to get your carbohydrates from healthier sources, like whole
wheat bread or pasta, without so much fat and salt.
- Sugars: One Serving, 3 grams (Whole Bag, 36 grams). “Simple sugars” like processed sugar
added to snacks and candies should be eaten in very small amounts, because they contain a lot
of calories and don’t offer a lot of good things to your body. This bag of chips has no sugar at all,
because it gets its flavor from salt instead. The best snack would be one that is low in both
sodium AND sugar.
- Protein: One Serving, 2 grams (Whole Bag, 24 grams). Protein is important to your body,
especially the muscles, and provides energy. 10-20% of your daily calories should come from
protein. These chips have very little protein, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as
you get your protein from other food during the day.
- Vitamins and Minerals (various amounts): The bottom of the Nutrition Facts label lists some
important vitamins and minerals that your body needs, and the percentages offered by this
particular food. If you look at the list, you’ll see that this bag of chips is not a good source for any
So what has this Nutrition Facts Label told us?
- To put it plainly, the Nutrition Facts Label has told us that this bag of sun chips is
nothing but “empty calories.” This means that the food has a lot of calories (140 calories for just
1 ounce of food!) and doesn’t offer much good stuff for your body.
- It’s low in a lot of the things that are good for your body (like protein, vitamins, and minerals),
and high in a lot of the things that can be bad for your body (like fats and sodium).
Remember: In general, when you read Nutrition Facts Labels, you should be looking for foods
that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low in sugar, sodium, cholesterol, and fats
(especially saturated fat and trans fat).
Before we move on, let’s consider another label that’s found on all foods: the Ingredient
- First things first: In any list, the biggest ingredients must be listed at the top. Beware of foods
that start out with sugars (like sugar, corn syrup, and sucrose), fats and oils (vegetable oil,
soybean oil), and salt. If these ingredients appear early in the ingredient list, the food is probably
not a good choice.
- Shorter is better: In many cases, the longer an ingredient is, the less natural and good for you
the food is. Look for foods that have a short ingredient list with natural-sounding ingredients. If
the ingredients are nothing but chemical names a hundred letters long, the food might be one
Okay, so now that you have some general knowledge of and the basic facts about food
labels, are you ready to start eating healthier and taking control of your life and your body?
Check out our fun worksheets that will help you apply what you learned to real life and help you
exercise these important everyday life-skills!