Basics Made Simple
Started, An Assessment
for Good Eating
It is not always
easy to choose the healthiest products for your family
Food labels can be confusing and many people
do not have the time to read every one. Food labels are required
for most prepared foods whereas the labeling of fruits, vegetables
and fish is voluntary.
The FDA monitors the supply of all food and beverages except
for meat, poultry and eggs, which the USDA oversees.
will find three areas of information on a food or beverage
package; the front of the package messages, the Nutrition
Facts Panel on the back of the box and the list of ingredients.
It is best to look at the back of the package because advertising
on the front of the package can be deceptive and the claims
may not always be accurate.
Manufacturers want you to buy their products. That is their
ultimate goal, and children are even more vulnerable to the
unhealthy foods that are being promoted because they do not
understand the concept of advertising. They are often driven
to select a product by the picture or character on a package.
There is a new trend to sell food as “medicine.”
“Lower cholesterol,” or “improves bowel
health” are some claims that you read and hear. That
simplistic natural “prescription” is misleading.
Focus on food for nutrition and not a quick fix for a health
issue. If you eat a plant-based diet with lots of variety,
you will reap the benefit of the many nutrients that are abundant
in whole food. Choosing the healthiest food products is essential
Read more below to find out how to read a food label, the
meaning of the many claims you see on a package, as well as
the best choices for fruits, vegetables and fish.
How to read
a food label
A. Nutrition Facts Label
In this section you will find how many serving sizes are in
the product you selected. This is important because if you
eat a whole bag of chips, you may think you are only eating
100 calories because that is what was listed under Calories.
But then you see that the bag serves 4, and you really would
have eaten 400 calories, not 100. The number of calories,
amount of each nutrient, and % Daily Value (%DV) of a food
is based on serving size. Serving sizes are given in familiar
units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount,
e.g., number of grams.
The amount of calories in one serving is listed on the left
side and the amount of calories that comes from fat in that
one serving is listed on the right. Calories are important,
especially if you want to manage your weight (lose, gain,
or maintain). In this example, there are 250 calories, 110
of which come from fat.
Unhealthy Nutrients, Limit These
Eating too much total fat (including saturated fat and trans
fat), cholesterol, or sodium can increase your risk of certain
diseases. Stay under 100% DV for each of these nutrients each
day as they have been linked to heart disease, cancers, and
high blood pressure. Try and choose products under 20% DV
for total fat. Note: DV for these unhealthful nutrients are
maximum amounts, not goals to be reached.
Good Nutrients, Get Enough of These
The healthy nutrients that must be listed on a label include
fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Most Americans
do not eat enough of these nutrients in their diets, and children
are especially at risk of not getting enough calcium during
their critical growing period. Make sure your child eats or
drinks enough servings of the four nutrients listed above
to equal 100% DV for each. Eating enough of these nutrients
may improve health and help reduce the risk of some diseases
and conditions. Note: You will see other vitamins listed from
time to time, but listing them is not mandatory.
(%) Daily Value
This section informs you if the nutrients listed in one serving
(total fat, sodium, dietary fiber, etc.) contribute a little
or a lot to the amount you need every day.
The % DV is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Even though most
children do not need this many calories every day, you can
still use this section to determine how well a product provides
good nutrition or how much unhealthful nutrients it contains.
For example, 18% for total fat means that one serving supplies
18% of the total amount of fat that you should eat in a day.
Note: 5% DV or less is low and 20% DV or more is considered
with Daily Values (% DVs)
The footnote at the bottom of the label lists the total amounts
that the DV was based on for important nutrients, including
fats, sodium and fiber. The amounts for total fat, saturated
fat, cholesterol, and sodium are the maximum amounts that
you should eat every day, not a goal to be reached. That means
you should try to stay below the amounts listed.
Total carbohydrates refer to sugar,
fiber and complex carbohydrates. You will see Total
Carbohydrate broken into fiber and sugar in this section.
Select food high in fiber (at least 2-3 grams per serving)
and in general, low in sugar. Healthy options include vegetables,
beans and whole grains.
Since no daily value has been set for sugar, you cannot tell
at first glance if the food is high or low in sugar. Also,
sugar refers to both added sugar and that normally occurring
in the product, like lactose (the sugar in milk) or sucrose
(the sugar in fruit). Healthy food may be high in carbohydrates
and have no added sugar; these include whole grains, milk
and fruit. But if you just look at the sugar content, it will
You should try and reduce the amount of added sugar in your
child’s diet as it contributes to weight gain and it
is considered empty calories. That means that there are little
to no nutrients like vitamins and minerals that come along
with it. To select foods low in added sugar look to the list
of ingredients. If any added sugar is in the top 3 ingredients
then it has too much sugar. Be aware that added sugar takes
on many forms on a food label. Here is a list of some of them:
• brown sugar
• corn sweetener
• corn syrup
• fruit juice concentrates
• high-fructose corn syrup
• invert sugar
• malt syrup
• raw sugar
Tips to choosing products with
enough whole grains to make a difference:
1. Make sure there are 3-5
grams of fiber per serving
2. Look at the list of ingredients
for the word “whole” to appear in the first or
second ingredient:”whole wheat,” “whole
oat flour” are some examples.
3. Don’t be fooled by
“contains whole grains” on the front of the box.
A product can say this and only contain a miniscule amount
of whole grain.
4. The Whole Grain Council
has made it easy to identify whole grain products. Look for
this stamp that says 100% Whole Grain. This means that all
the grains in a product are made from 100% whole grains and
that the product contains at least one serving of whole grain.
Be careful though as they also have a stamp that says Whole
Grain when only 1/2 of the product contains whole grains and
the rest can come from processed grains.
The List of
This is the best place to look to get an overall quick snapshot
of the healthfulness of the product. Ingredients are listed
in order of predominance with the ingredient used in the highest
amount listed first followed in descending order to the ingredient
used in the least amount. The first 2 ingredients should be
healthy ones, such as fruit, vegetable, whole grains, low
fat milk and protein. If they are sugar or fat, the product
is most likely not what you want to feed your children, unless
of course you are buying salad dressing, oils, or a bag of
sugar for baking. Try to avoid products with partially hydrogenated
or hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial
colors, flavors and sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame K, Splenda,
sucralose, saccharine, neotame).
Did you ever wonder what fat free, natural or organic means
on a food label? It may not be what you think. Check out the
Daily Values: Nutrient Claims
• A Good Source of: If a label claims the product is
a good source of a specific nutrient, which means it contains
10 to 19% the Daily Value (DV).
• High: If the food contains 20% or more. An example
of this would be that milk is a good source of calcium because
it supplies at least 20% of the amount of calcium that one
needs (eating a 2000 calorie diet) in one day
• Low: If the food contains 5% or less.
Calories: The unit of energy in food and
Calories free: Less than
5 calories per serving
Low calorie: 40 calories
or less per serving
Sugar free: Less than
0.5 grams (g) of sugar per serving
Reduced sugar: The product
has at least 25% less sugar per serving than the regular
High fiber: The serving
has 5 g or more of fiber
Good source of fiber:
The serving has 2.5 g to 4.9 g of fiber
Fat free: Less than 0.5
g of fat or saturated fat per serving
Saturated fat free: Less
than 0.5 g of saturated fat and less than 0.5 g of trans
Low fat: contains 3 g
or less of total fat
Low saturated fat: contains
1 g or less of saturated fat
Reduced fat or less fat:
The product has at least 25% less fat than the regular version.
This by itself does not mean the product is low in fat because
even after the 25% reduction, the total fat amount may still
be very high. Check the nutrition label for total amounts.
Cholesterol free: There
is less than 2 mg per serving
Low cholesterol: The
serving has 20 mg or less
Reduced cholesterol or less cholesterol:
The product has at least 25% less cholesterol than the regular
Trans fat free: The product
has less than 0.5 grams per serving. It is important to
note that a product can still contain trans fat and the
only way to be sure is to look for the word “partially
hydrogenated” in the list of ingredients. Some manufacturers
dropped their serving sizes so that each contained less
than 0.5 grams per serving. Choose products with no trans
fat at all. Also avoid products that contain “hydrogenated”
Sodium free or salt free:
less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Very low sodium: The
serving has 35 mg of sodium or less
Low sodium: The serving
has 140 mg of sodium or less
Reduced sodium or less sodium:
The product has at least 25% less sodium than the regular
The FDA has not defined the word “natural” so
it doesn’t really mean much of anything on a product.
The current guideline is that the term natural is to be used
on food products as long as it “is truthful and not
misleading,” and does not contain artificial colors
or flavors or “synthetic substances.”
For meat and poultry products, the term "natural"
may be used when products contain no artificial ingredients
or preservatives and are no more than minimally processed.
Beyond that, the USDA does not have oversight into the treatment
of the animals as it does when the “organic” seal
There are several “levels” of Organic that can
appear on a label and it is based on the percent of organic
ingredients in the product.
100% Organic: The products
contain 100% organically produced ingredients and processing
aids, not counting added water and salt.
Organic: The product
must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not counting
added water and salt, and have no added sulfites. Up to
5% of it may be from non-organic ingredients.
Made with Organic Ingredients:
The product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients,
not counting added water and salt, and have no added sulfites
except for wine. Up to 30% of it may be from non-organic
Product has some Organic Ingredients:
This is for products with less than 70% organic ingredients.
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the National
Organic Program (NOP) oversees agricultural products that
are sold and labeled, in the United States as Organic. The
exception for this is small operations (sales totals $5,000
or less). Look for this seal.
for a definition of organic meat.
Note: Organic doesn’t necessarily
mean healthy for you. Corn syrup, potato chips, and cookies
are some of the products that can be labeled organic. While
cookies made from organic ingredients provide less toxic
residue from pesticides used in farming practices, it doesn’t
mean that the cookies are healthy for you or your children.
Sustainable: This term
applies to locally grown food and meat that use sustainable
agricultural practices. These include growing food by using
techniques that do not harm the environment, thus preserving
the land, and are seasonal. Organic and sustainable do not
mean the same thing as you can buy an organic apple that has
no pesticides but was grown in Mexico and flown across the
US during the late winter months. Also, when you buy an apple
locally grown in season you are not necessarily buying one
that is free of pesticide residue. It is best to find both
sustainable and organic if you have the choice but if not
do your best and provide the healthiest option for your child,
lots of fruits and vegetables Sustainable practices also protect
and support the local farmer by making sure they are paid
fairly and help with the distribution of their food.
All fruits and vegetable in their whole form without anything
added are the healthiest. Having said that, some are better
than others, such as green and orange leafy vegetables and
colorful fruit. The more vivid the color, usually the healthier
it is. You can entice your child to eat raw baby carrot sticks,
celery, red pepper, cauliflower, cucumber, zucchini by having
them dip it in plain yogurt or fat free ranch dressing. If
you are unable to buy fresh fruit or vegetables, frozen fruits
and vegetables can be just as healthy as they are frozen at
the peak of their freshness. Green leafy vegetables like collard
greens, Kale, and spinach come frozen and they are a great
quick addition to soup.
When it comes to canned produce, be careful of added salt,
sugar, fat and preservatives. When selecting canned fruit
like pineapple, pear or peaches choose one that is packed
in fruit juice, not in light or heavy syrup. Apples are sweet
enough; buy unsweetened applesauce.
What doesn’t count as a
fruit or vegetable serving?
• Fruit strips
• Gummy bear fruit snacks
• Fruit roll ups
• Only the first glass of juice counts for one serving
and then the rest needs to be whole fruit and vegetables,
• Fruit flavoring
• Products that say on the front of the box that say
they have fruit or vegetables in them but when you check the
ingredient list, it is far down. If it is not #1 on the list,
it doesn’t count.
Foods High in Antioxidants
||Red Bell Peppers
Eating 7-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is the
single best thing you can do for you and your child’s
health. But because of the widespread use of pesticides, both
here and abroad, some produce have high levels of pesticides
on them. Now that the country of origin is listed on produce,
you can determine where your fruit and vegetable comes from.
Be careful when choosing products outside of the US, as standards
for pesticide use is not the same and some countries use chemicals
that are banned in the United States.
Pesticides are harmful to you and your child’s health.
Children are more vulnerable for two reasons; pound for pound,
children absorb a higher concentration of pesticides than
adults and because they are growing so fast, they are more
vulnerable to the toxic effects of the chemicals. Scientists
agree that even small doses of pesticides and other chemicals
can have negative consequences on the long-term health of
growing babies and children. They recommend that consumption
of these chemicals be reduced.
If you cannot afford to eat only organic produce, try to avoid
the twelve types of produce containing the most pesticide.
The Environmental Working Group has found that by eliminating
those fruits and vegetables at the top of the list and eating
those on the bottom of the list, the exposure to pesticides
reduces significantly. They are called the “Dirty Dozen”
for the worst and “Clean 15” for the best, and
they are listed below. For a wallet size printout click here:
Both lists taken from the Environmental
Working Group’s Web site www.foodnews.org
Try planting a garden. That way you
know exactly what was used to grow your fruits and vegetables.
An added benefit is that gardening teaches children where
food comes from and it helps to get them excited about produce
to the point where they will be more likely to eat it. Even
those living in apartments can plant tomatoes and herbs on
their terraces or at a nearby local neighborhood garden plot.
Check out areas by you.
Deb's Bottom Line
You have probably heard that eating
fish once or twice a week is healthy for you. The main reason
for this is that the fat content in fish is healthier than
with meats and it is a good source of protein. Some types
are also high in omega three fatty acids, which is very beneficial.
You need to be careful when selecting the types of fish you
eat however, as many have been found to have high levels of
mercury from the polluted water where they swim.
When choosing fish it is very important to select those that
are low in mercury. The most common source of mercury for
Americans is tuna fish because we eat so much of it. Mercury
poses a health threat to the brain and nervous system, especially
in growing children and pregnant women. Children are smaller
so the amount of mercury it takes to be toxic is less than
that for an adult.
Keep children's consumption to less than one ounce per week
of canned light tuna for every 12 pounds of body weight in
order to stay below the level of mercury the Environmental
Protection Agency considers safe. That means that a child
who weighs 36 pounds should not eat more than 3 ounces (half
a standard-sized can of chunk light tuna) per week. Children
should also avoid albacore or white tuna because the levels
of mercury are higher.
If you would like to calculate you or your child’s average
mercury dose from fish, click
Taken from the Natural
Resources Defense Council
six servings or less per month:
three servings or less per month:
||Sea Bass (Chilean)*
|| Halibut (Atlantic)*
|* Fish in Trouble!
These fish are perilously low in numbers or are caught
using environmentally destructive methods.
|** Farmed Salmon may
contain PCB's, chemicals with serious long-term health
Print and copy this handy wallet
guide so that you have it available when you are
out shopping: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/walletcard.pdf
Eating Tuna Safely
Limit tuna to the following, assuming you eat no
other fish. If you eat other fish high in mercury, cut down
the tuna levels recommended below even further. Remember chunk
light tuna has a lot less mercury than white albacore tuna.
eat more than one can every:
eat more than one can every:
|Fish low in
mercury and high in omega 3 fatty acids:
If you would like to teach your child about
the benefits and cautions of eating fish, the Environmental
Protection Agency has a Web site devoted to this issue. It
is called Fish Kids, click
here to check it out
Children need healthy sources
of fat in their diet every day and they also need to limit
the unhealthy fats. In order to do this it is important to:
• Don’t be fooled by low
fat or no fat claims on processed food as most have lots of
added sugar and probably the same amount of calories.
• Do purchase low or non fat dairy and meat products
as these are the healthier varieties. (children under 2 need
whole fat varieties of dairy)
• Limit eating out, especially at fast food and family
style restaurants. Both types of restaurants add lots of unhealthy
fat and salt to most meals. If you do eat out ask for food
to be baked, grilled or steamed and leave the sauces.
• Choose trans fat free products. Most baked goods and
processed foods are made with trans fats which show up in
the list of ingredients as “partially hydrogenated oil”
or as a saturated fat “hydrogenated oil”. Both
are unhealthy, so find a variety that does not contain these
• If you use margarine, select the trans fat free varieties.
Stick forms of margarine have more trans fat than the tubs
or squeeze forms.
• Buy lean cuts of red meat, and remove the visible
fat before cooking
• When serving poultry, take off the skin before serving
• Bake or broil meats as frying adds unnecessary fat
to your child’s diet
• Grilling is okay occasionally but do not eat the charred
healthy sources of fat and oil:
• Select the first
pressed olive oils
• Most of us get plenty of corn and soy oil from other
products so try using other plant based oils: olive, canola,
sunflower, flax and sesame seed oils for example, for cooking
and preparing foods.
• Purchase nuts and seeds to snack on as long as nut
allergies are not an issue
• Serve fish twice a week and click here for the best
varieties (link to fish tips above)
• For definitions of low fat and no fat click here Link
to definitions of low fat
Serve red meat occasionally and
make sure it is lean.
Avoid processed meat (cold cuts, hot
dogs, bacon, and bologna). The best animal sources for protein
are fish and poultry. Make sure to include vegetable sources
daily like beans (legumes) and nuts.
• If you serve cold cuts, bacon and hot dogs choose
those that are lean AND nitrite or nitrate free. Nitrites
and nitrates have been linked to cancer so make sure you limit
your child’s exposure to this harmful preservative.
• When buying beef don’t buy the “prime”
cut as it has the most fat. Also avoid cuts that have marbling,
which are streaks of white fat throughout the meat. Select
“choice” or “select” cuts and go for
the 95% lean hamburger meat. Remember to remove any excess
fat before cooking.
Cuts of Beef
Lean Cuts of Beef
||Eye of round roast
|95% lean ground beef
||Top round steak
|Chuck shoulder roast
||Mock tender steak
|Arm pot roast
||Bottom round roast
here for more information on how to select the
best fish options for your family
Definitions of labels you will
see on meat and poultry products
The USDA defines “natural” for beef or poultry
as meat that contains no artificial ingredients or preservatives
and are no more than minimally processed. Beyond that they
have no oversight and independent companies take over. They
can treat their animals any way they want and keep them in
factory feed lots if they wish, so if “humanely treated”
is important to you, look for an organic symbol instead. For
cows, farmers can also use antibiotics early on in the life
of the cow as and still call the meat “natural”.
2. Organic: A government certified inspector
is required to inspect the farm where the meat product is
produced when the “organic” label is used. This
is not the case however with “natural” labeled
products. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products can
be labeled as organic if the animal is born and raised on
certified organic pasture, have access to the outdoors, receive
humane treatment and have never received growth hormones or
antibiotics. They also can not be genetically engineered or
irradiated and must be fed only certified organic grains and
3. Sustainable practices with livestock include
treating the animal humanely as well as protecting and preserving
the land on which they roam. It does not mean they were necessarily
fed organic feed or not given hormones or antibiotics but
check with the farmer to make sure. Link here for more information
link to definition/sustainability
4. Corn versus Grass fed beef: The cow’s
digestive system has evolved to eat grass, and lots of it.
They were not designed to eat corn and as such they have a
hard time digesting it and get sick, which leads to the use
of antibiotics that gets passed along to the consumer through
the meat. Farmers use corn because it fattens up the cow faster
which means more profit for them. Grass fed cows provide healthier
meat then corn fed cows as they have less of the bad fats
and more of the good ones like omega 3 fatty acids. It is
much harder to find and more expensive to buy beef from grass
fed cows but it is worth the investment if you eat red meat
sparingly as recommended. Be aware that “grass fed “cows
can also come from cows fed grass while they live in restricted
areas or pens. Look for “Open Pasture” or “Pasture
Raised” which indicates that the cow was able to roam
freely in a pasture eating a wide range of greens.
5. “Cage free” for poultry and
eggs doesn’t really mean anything more than the bird
was not housed in a cage. It doesn’t mean that they
had access to the outdoors or were humanely treated. There
is no oversight for this labeling so beware.
6. “Free range” is used on poultry
and egg products and is defined by the USDA as the poultry
having access to open air for 5 minutes per bird each day
which really doesn’t make a difference in the long run
for the bird or their health. Don’t pay extra for this
Share Your Favorites
Thousands of new food products are released
every month and it is impossible to keep track of each and
every one. Help us grow the list of healthful products by
submitting your favorites with comments to Dr
Deb. Dr Deb will review each
for nutritional quality and place the healthy options on the
Only have healthful alternatives in the house; If
the junk food is not there, they cannot eat it.
Install consequences; For instance, dessert is not
an option unless vegetables have been eaten.
Continue to offer healthy varieties as it may take
10-12 tries until a new food is liked.
Do not make it a battle, but be firm. Children will
eat when hungry.
Offer smaller portions at first so that your child
can feel like he/she accomplished something.
Remember that you
are teaching them habits for life so get them involved
in the selection, preparation, cooking and serving