The following in no particular order appears on a nutritional label, to provide information on the ingredients listed in a particular food product:
SATURATED FAT AND TRANS FAT
The amount of saturated fat appears beneath total fat. The FDA also requires food-makers to list trans fats separately on the label.
Saturated fats and trans fats are often called “bad fats” because they raise cholesterol and increase a person’s risk for developing heart disease. Both saturated and trans fats are solid at room temperature (picture them clogging up arteries!).
Saturated fat usually comes from animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and meats. Trans fats are naturally found in these foods, too. But they’re also in vegetable oils that have been specially treated, or hydrogenated, to be solid at room temperature — the fats in stick margarine and shortening, for example. Some cookies, crackers, fried foods, snack foods, and processed foods also contain trans fats.
Saturated fats should account for less than 10% of the calories that kids eat each day, and the amount of trans fat that they consume should be as low as possible (less than 1% of total calories).
Unsaturated fats are also listed under total fat. These are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Foods high in unsaturated fat are vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Unsaturated fats are often called “good fats” because they don’t raise cholesterol levels as saturated fats do. Most fats should come from sources of unsaturated fats.
Cholesterol, usually measured in milligrams, is listed under the fat information. Cholesterol is important in producing vitamin D, some hormones, and in building many other important substances in the body.
Cholesterol can become a problem if the amount in the blood is too high, though, which can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis, a blockage and hardening of arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Most of the cholesterol a person needs is manufactured by the liver. However, dietary sources such as meat and poultry, eggs, and whole-milk dairy products also contribute to cholesterol level.
Sodium, a component of salt, is listed on the Nutrition Facts label in milligrams. Small amounts of sodium are necessary for keeping proper body fluid balance, but too much can contribute to high blood pressure. Almost all foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium but many processed foods contain greater amounts.
This number, listed in grams, combines several types of carbohydrates: dietary fibers, sugars, and other carbohydrates. Carbs are the most abundant source of calories. Up to 60% of a child’s total calories should come from carbohydrates. The best sources are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Listed under total carbohydrate, dietary fiber itself has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. High-fiber diets promote bowel regularity, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and can help reduce cholesterol levels.
Also listed under total carbohydrate on food labels, sugars are found in most foods. Fruits naturally contain simple sugars but also contain fiber, water, and vitamins, which make them a healthy choice.
Snack foods, candy, and soda, on the other hand, often have large amounts of added sugars. Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content in soft drinks and snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these “empty calories” usually contain few other nutrients.
This listing tells you how much protein is in a single serving of a food and is usually measured in grams. Most of the body — including muscles, skin, and the immune system — is made up of protein. If the body doesn’t get enough fat and carbohydrates, it can use protein for energy.
Foods high in protein include eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, nuts, soybeans, and dried beans. Anywhere from 10%-20% of the calories that kids consume each day should come from protein.
VITAMIN A AND VITAMIN C
Vitamins A and C are two important vitamins, which is why they’re required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label. The amount of each vitamin per serving is measured in percent daily values — so eating a food with a percent daily value of 80% vitamin C gives you 80% of the recommended daily value for vitamin C based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Vitamin A, which usually appears first on a food label’s list of vitamins and minerals, is important for good eyesight and helps maintain healthy skin. It’s found in orange vegetables, such as carrots and squash, and in dark green, leafy vegetables.
The body uses vitamin C to build and maintain connective tissues, heal wounds, and fight infections. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, other fruits, and some vegetables.
Food companies might also list the amounts of other vitamins.
CALCIUM AND IRON
The percentages of these two important minerals are required on labels and measured in percent daily values. Food companies can also list the amount of other minerals.
Calcium has a lot of uses in the body, but is best known for its role in building healthy bones and teeth. Milk and other dairy products are excellent calcium sources. Kids between 1 and 3 years old need 700 milligrams of calcium per day, while 4- to 8-year-olds need 1000 milligrams.
The calcium requirement for kids and teens 9 to 18 years old jumps to 1,300 milligrams per day — the equivalent of 4 cups (about 1 liter) of milk. It’s easy to see why most teens in the United States don’t get enough calcium every day, but calcium can also be found in other foods, such as fortified orange juice, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables.
Iron helps the body produce new, healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, so it’s important to get adequate iron. Teenage girls and women need extra iron to compensate for that lost in the blood during menstruation. Meat is the best source of iron, but it’s also found in iron-fortified cereals, tofu, dried beans, and dark green, leafy vegetables.