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Food & Fitness

How to Read Food Labels: A Cheat Sheet for the Supermarket

how to read food labels

Did you know that the average supermarket carries over 42,000 items?

That’s 42,000 nutrition panels, ingredient lists, and opportunities for your kids to whine, “I want this” (or surreptitiously drop the items into your cart and hope you don’t notice).

With 42,000 products trying their best to seduce you, how do you find the healthiest packaged foods in the least amount of time?

With this supermarket cheat sheet.

When food shopping for young children, you only need to pay attention to a few things. Focus on:

  • The Ingredients List: Do a quick scan before you look at all the numbers. Does the food look generally wholesome? Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the food primarily comprises the first few items on the list.

Red flags:

    • One of the first ingredients is an added sugar.
    • The first ingredient is a refined grain.
    • You see partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats).
  • Fiber: Whole-grain products should contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
  • Sugar: If added sugar is one of the first few ingredients, it’s likely not a health food. Added sugar has aliases such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, corn syrup, date sugar, evaporated cane juice, and fruit juice concentrates.
  • Sodium: Use the %DV column on the nutrition facts panel to gauge how much salt is in a product. As a general guide, 20% or more of a nutrient is considered “high,” and 5% or less is considered “low.” (While the media often focuses on sugar, about 90% of kids get too much sodium, which can raise blood pressure. “High blood pressure in childhood is linked to early development of heart disease and an increased risk of cardiac death,” reports the American Heart Association.)
  • Additives (at your discretion): If you want to eliminate controversial additives like artificial colors and flavors, the length of the ingredients list alone may tip you off.


  • Calories: First, if the food passed your initial review, chances are you’ve got a healthy item that provides a lot of important nutrients per calorie.
  • Second, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend counting calories for toddlers and young children. Instead, let your child decide how much and what to eat of what you offer him. He has an innate ability to know when he’s hungry and when he’s full.

  • Percent Daily Values for Vitamins and Minerals: Most toddlers and young children who get an appropriate amount of food from a variety of food groups will meet their vitamin and mineral needs.
  • Marketing Tricks: The front of a package is marketing. “Companies are always trying to brag about how great their product is,” says father and nutrition consultant Chris Mohr, PhD, RD. “I say, if you have to brag, it’s probably not a top choice in the diet.” Listen for silence. “Fruits and veggies, which have no labels, aren’t ‘yelling’ about all of their amazing qualities. They’re just awesome,” he adds.

Here are some of the most common marketing tactics food companies use to get parents’ attention:

    • “100% Daily Value for Vitamin C”: Most children aren’t vitamin C deficient.
    • “Made with Real Fruit”: That’s great, but so is fruit, a much better option. The five main ingredients in one popular kid’s snack with this claim are four types of sugar and a trans fat. Proceed with caution.
    • “Natural”: This term doesn’t mean healthy. The Food & Drug Administration doesn’t have a standard definition for “natural,” but it’s allowed only on products that don’t contain added color, artificial flavor, or synthetic substances.
    • “Made With Whole Grains”: Don’t put too much stock in this one—it just means there’s a whole grain in there somewhere.

Bonus: How to Involve Kids In Label Reading

  • Explain how ingredients are ordered by weight, so the first ingredient tells you a lot.
  • Teach them to find added sugars on the ingredients list.
  • Compare two packages, like two boxes of crackers, and look for the differences. Which one has more sugar? More fiber? What is the first ingredient?
  • Help them calculate how many teaspoons of sugar are in a serving, using the 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon conversion. “It helps bring awareness of how much sugar is really in some food and drinks (and builds their math skills too!),” explains Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, blogger at and author of “Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide.”
  • Look at the percent daily values. Are any of them high or low?
  • When they’re old enough, give them a few dollars at the grocery store and let them explore the aisles, recommends Mohr. “The more involved they are, the more interested they will be in exploring and trying new foods.”

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