Making Sense of (Sometimes Tricky) Terms on Food Labels

As soon as my three sons were big enough to sit up in a shopping cart, they came to the supermarket with me. I'll admit that some 'shopping experiences' (let's just call them that!) were quite challenging including mediating between who would push the cart, who would get to ride on front, and of course, what we agreed would go

into the cart.

When they were young, we'd play a lot of fun games in the produce aisle like focusing on foods that were round, or red, or really funny shapes. But as they got older, shopping took on a more serious note. Although the number one goal had always been to choose foods that tasted good, my kids began to develop a greater understanding about why certain foods were also good for them.

Comparing food labels became a hands-on learning experience where our props were the foods that filled our fridge and pantry. As an example, if someone wanted a cereal that displayed a favorite TV character on the front, and if this product had way more sugar than our typical breakfast choices, then the deal was that they had to mix the sugary type equally with another that contained barely any added sugar. I learned early on that compliance comes more readily when compromise is served as a side dish!

Before you walk down another supermarket aisle with one or more of your kids in your hand or riding in or pushing your cart, why not get familiar with some of the terms you'll see on food labels. Learning how to read and decipher Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredients lists can help both you and your kids understand sometimes tricky terms that might cost you and your kids time, money, and calories:

Light: It's not always best to lighten up. An item claiming to be "light," like

light bread, must have one-third fewer calories, fat or sodium than the regular version of that same product

. However, for certain products, the calories may not be impacted at all! For example,

light olive oil has the same

calories as the thickest, darkest, richest olive oil you could find. It is just lighter in color and flavor than the regular counterpart. One cup of either oil has around 2,000 calories, so although oil is a healthy fat, a cup that runneth over could bring more calories than you might have imagined. And while

light soy sauce has 50 percent less sodium than the regular type, if you eat it like soup you'll get a lot more sodium (around 500 milligrams sodium per tablespoon) than you and your kids bargained for.

Serving size: Sometimes you may wonder if one serving of food, reflected in the serving size listed on the label, is the right size. A serving that is well suited for an adult may be way too much for a child, especially a young one.When you look at the serving size on a food label, don't forget to multiply each of the numbers listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel by the number of servings you actually consume to know how much of that food you're actually planning to consume.

Sugar: By any other name, sugar tastes just as sweet. Especially on food labels, sugar is the master of disguise. And it isn't always spelled s-u-g-a-r.  To know where your sweetener is coming from, check the list of ingredients for words like corn syrup, cane juice, or anything ending in "ose" (like dextrose). If, for example, your child loves yogurt, it's wise to steer away from highly sweetened varieties that can be more like candy in a container than a healthy dose of dairy. Opting for Greek yogurt, which is thicker in texture, provides less sugar (and double the protein) compared with other yogurts. Checking the ingredient list can also help you see where the sugar in the product comes from and whether it's a result of added fruit or added sweeteners.

Zero. Did you know that zero may

not be your hero? A product can contain up to 0.5 grams of fat per serving and still be called "fat-free." This term doesn't say anything about calories or sugar content; one muffin could be fat-free, but could contain 600 calories and be loaded with sugar. Similarly, manufacturers can brand any product with less than half a gram of trans-fat per serving with "0 grams trans fat." When it comes to harmful trans-fat, scoot down to the ingredient list: if you see the product contains hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats, put it down and have your kids choose something else.

Sugar-free. Although "sugar-free" items might have less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, that doesn't mean such items are calorie- or fat-free. Eating too many "free" foods could be costly, especially if they take the place of more nutritious foods your kids need for growth.

How do you make healthier food choices for your family when food shopping?

Image of woman and children with shopping cart via Shutterstock.

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