In the past, if you walked into a grocery store looking for peanut butter, you’d grab the one brand of peanut butter they had and check out. Now when you walk into a grocery store there are at least five different types of peanut butter, not to mention all of the alternative nut butters. This phenomenon applies to almost all foods.
There are just too many products to choose from when trying to buy groceries. This also does not help when it comes to trying to buy healthy foods. Healthy foods are usually not located on a designated aisle and can be scattered among other foods in a grocery store, leading to a complicated food shopping environment. The variety of product choices and uncertainty in whether or not a food is a healthy option is one of the many reasons why people find it difficult to choose.
An easy way to help make a decision can be looking at the Nutrition Facts labels on the product packaging. Nutrition labels are required on almost all packaged foods and roughly 96.3% of processed, packaged foods regulated by the FDA have Nutrition Facts labels on them. The current Nutrition Facts labels contain information regarding serving size, energy (calories), Percent Daily Value, nutrients to increase (calcium, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron) and nutrients to decrease (total fat, cholesterol, sodium). New Nutrition Facts labels have been approved, but the new labels will likely not be on the shelves until 2020. These new labels will have a new design; add information about added sugars, Vitamin D and potassium; remove required information on Vitamins A & C; and update serving sizes. Nutrition labels are important for helping people understand the nutritional composition of a product so they can make informed decisions on which foods to consume to achieve a healthy diet. Adults who use nutrition labels eat healthier diets than adults who don’t pay attention to the nutrition labels. But what about adolescents? Adolescents are an interesting age group because they are beginning to be more independent and have more decision-making abilities than younger children, but do not yet have adult responsibilities. Adolescents can also influence foods that parents buy and often have the opportunity to choose between different foods, especially with regard to snack foods. Most high school students can drive, and this increased mobility and independence allows them to eat or select foods without parental oversight.
So how can parents ensure that their children make healthy food choices when they are not around? According to a recent study from our Center, parents should teach their children to use nutrition labels to make their food choices. This study found that adolescents who used nutrition labels ate more fruits and vegetables, and less sugary foods and beverages, as well as having an overall healthier diet than those who did not use nutrition labels.
One of the most important tips for reading nutrition labels is to pay attention to the serving size. Many times an item will contain more than 1 serving. This means all of the amounts listed will need to be multiplied by that number if the entire packaged is consumed. It is also important to check the macronutrients on the nutrition labels; a healthy diet for an adult includes around 20-35% fat, 45-65% carbohydrates, and 10-35% protein. Make sure the foods contain healthy fats: monounsaturated a fats and are low in saturated and trans fats. With regards to carbohydrates, avoid foods with added sugars; the American Heart Association recommends that daily added sugar intake should be no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) to 9 teaspoons (36 grams) respectively for women and men, so it is important to pay close attention to this value. Lastly, carefully examine the ingredient list; a long ingredient list is usually a sign that the product is more processed and contains more sodium and sugar. Foods are healthiest when closer to their natural state (like fresh fruits and vegetables).
Obesity has long been an issue that has plagued children in the United States and using nutrition labels is just one way we can emphasize the importance of nutrition and healthy dietary behaviors, to continue to accomplish our goal of healthy children in a healthy world.
Amier is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, studying biochemistry and psychology. After graduation he plans to attend medical school to earn an MD/MPH dual degree. He has been interning at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living since the summer of 2016, working primarily on the SPAN survey as well as the CATCH project. In his free time he enjoys running, lifting weights, and playing basketball.