A Lesson in Labels: What's Healthy, What's Not

Once you know what to look for on labels, feeding your kids healthy foods is a piece of cake (um, we mean a cinch!).

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    Reading Labels 101

    Finding wholesome fare for our families should be easy -- new products constantly arrive on the supermarket shelves, promising great nutrition and taste, even for the pickiest eaters. So what's the problem? "At face value, many choices seem healthy and may have some healthy ingredients, but if you look beyond the appealing packaging, they simply have 'health halos' and are no better than the junk you're trying to avoid," says Kristen Rudolph, R.D., a pediatric nutritionist affiliated with Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a mother of two. Children should get no more than 40 grams of fat, 1,500 milligrams of sodium, and 32 grams of sugar a day. Peek at the label on your typical snack, and you may be shocked at how fast you reach those allowances in a single serving. But with a little education (read on!) and some savvy label reading, you can bypass the unwholesome stuff and stock your fridge and pantry with good-for-you foods that are tasty, too. We help you decode the labels of seven kitchen staples.

  • Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
    Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
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    There's no doubt about it: Yogurt is a health food. It's chock-full of calcium and protein and can offer good bacteria. (Look for "live active cultures" on the label.) These probiotics nourish in your child's intestines and aid in breaking down foods. While fruit is usually a good thing, in some brands the "fruit" is sugary preserves, which can up the sugar content to rival that of a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

    Red Flags:

    • High sugar (shoot for a product with fewer than 10 grams per 1-ounce serving)
    • Artificial Flavors or colors

    Green Light: Probiotics, live active cultures

    Healthy Choices: All are high in good bacteria and don't overdo it in the sugar department.

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    Crackers are sooo convenient. Plus, they must be good because they're not fried and are made with whole grains, right? The problem: "Many crackers are greasy and offer very little fiber, which helps prevent constipation and boosts colon health," Rudolph says. Fortunately, there are lots of crackers on the market that are all they're cracked up to be.

    Red Flags:

    • High fat content (Choose products with no more than 4 grams per 1-ounce serving)
    • High sodium content (140 milligrams or more)

    Green Light: Whole grains as one of the first three ingredients; at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

    Healthy Choices:

    • Reduced-fat Triscuits (which have fiber, protein, and only three simple ingredients: whole wheat, salt, and a little oil)
    • Kashi TLC 7 Grain Crackers (a good crunchy option)

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    Dried Fruit

    "The only ingredient should be the fruit itself," says Judy Converse, R.D., a pediatric nutritionist in Boulder, Colorado. "But many brands add sugar and other preservatives to increase shelf life." Drying concentrates the sugar content in fruit, so the fruit alone is sweet enough. The one exception: cranberries. They're too sour to eat without sugar, so save them as an occasional treat. Steer clear of fruit leathers, which are highly processed and have little nutritional value.

    Red Flags:

    • High sugar content (which is generally more than 9 grams per 1-ounce serving)
    • Sulfur products (preservatives that may upset the stomach)

    Green Light: One-ingredient labels.

    Healthy Choices:

    • Dried fruit sold in the bulk section of your supermarket (Stores usually post ingredients right on the bins; if yours doesn't, ask the manager for more information.)
    • Sugar-free varieties of prunes, apricots, and raisins

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    Cereal is convenient, frequently fortified with whole grains and vitamins, and most kids gobble it up without hesitation. "The most important thing is that your kid is going to eat it," says American Baby advisor Tara Gidus, R.D. "So it has to taste good to them." What about cereals marketed to kids? "Some have decent fiber and whole grains," Gidus says. Gravitate toward ones that make good finger foods; avoid hard cereals that your child could choke on.

    Red Flags:

    • High sugar (shoot for a product with fewer than 10 grams per 1-ounce serving)

    Green Light: Whole grains as the first ingredient; at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

    Healthy Choices:

    • Cheerios Multigrain (kids across the board like this one)
    • Frosted Shredded Wheat and Bite-Size Cereal (avoid Mini Wheats, which are too big for the under-2 set)
    • Kashi Heart to Heart

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    Oatmeal Packets

    "The oats themselves aren't the problem. It's the processing," Converse says. By the time the oatmeal gets into the packet, "there's often more sugar than oats, and some of the fiber is gone," she adds. "You digest high-fiber foods more slowly, so they're more satisfying," Rudolph says. The fiber also helps slow the rate at which carbohydrates turn into sugar, so it's beneficial for blood sugar, too.

    Red Flags:

    • Loads of sugar (more than 9 grams per packet)

    Green Light: Whole-grain oats as the first ingredient (the label might say "oats," which are always whole grain); at least 3 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per packet.

    Healthy Choices:

    • Regular, unflavored quick oats: Sweeten with raisins, brown sugar, or maple syrup
    • Quaker Simple Harvest Instant Multigrain Cereals
    • Kirkland Signature Organic Instant Whole Grain Oatmeal (FYI: The longer oats take to cook, the thicker they are and the more fiber they have.)

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    Wheat Bread

    This is a tricky one. It can be hard to separate the wheat from the wheatless, so to speak. "Some wheat bread is made with brown tinted flour -- It's just white bread in disguise," Converse says. "If a 'wheat' bread has fewer than 3 grams of fiber and no protein, it's not made with whole grains -- that means no heart benefit from the grains and insufficient fiber," Rudolph says.

    Red Flags:

    • Low fiber (fewer than 3 grams per slice)
    • No whole grains

    Green Light: "100% Whole Grain Whole Wheat" or "100% Whole Wheat".

    Healthy Choices:

    • Nature's Own 100% Whole Wheat bread (a smooth, kid-friendly version)
    • Sarah Lee Soft and Smooth (contains whole grains without whole wheat's heavy texture)
    • If your kid is a white-bread diehard, make his sandwich with one piece of wheat and one of white.

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    Deli Turkey

    Most kids have never met a turkey sandwich they didn't like, and really, who could blame them? High in protein, low in fat, and mild in taste, it's the perfect filling for kids. But if that turkey breast you see in the refrigerated case or behind the deli counter bears absolutely no resemblance to the bird in question, it's time to rethink the deli meat you've been buying.

    Red Flags:

    • Nitrates
    • MSG
    • Artificial flavors
    • Colors or additives

    Green Light: Minimally processed; products marked "low in sodium".

    Healthy Choices:

    • Boar's Head All Natural Deli Meats (minimally processed, no nitrates, and lower in sodium than its competition)
    • Rotisserie chicken or turkey breast (store it in the fridge and slice for sandwiches)
    • Deli-roasted or organic; chemical-free turkey (Whole Foods offers these)

    Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.

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    More Label-Reading Information

    Be sure to check out these additional resources for more information on how to decipher food labels.