Helpful Stuff

Understanding Food Labels

5 minutes read

Kate Geagan

Kate Geagan, M.S., R.D.N.

Dietitian and sustainable nutrition pioneer

How To Use the Food Label to Eat Smarter

The Nutrition Facts Label is a bit like a table of contents for a book; it offers an easy-to-use format that shares important information about what’s inside. While critics say food labels can be confusing or incomplete (and they have a point), they can still be a useful tool to learn more about how a particular food or beverage fits in your baby or toddler’s diet.

Not all foods require a full food label (such as fresh fruits and veggies). But for those that do, here’s a quick guide of how you can use it to help you eat smarter

Check the Basics

By law food labels must list ingredients, allergen information, guidance on storage, a best before date, and instructions for use. For new parents and caregivers, these can be a lifesaver as you’re navigating all of those first bottles and bites on your little one’s health journey.

Pay Attention to Serving Size

Listed in bold up at the top you’ll find serving size, along with how many servings are in the package. These are listed in familiar formats (such as cups or pieces) to make it easier to understand. Servings sizes are not a suggestion of how much to consume, but rather refer to the common amount typically consumed of this type of product, which is helpful when comparing between the Nutrition Facts Labels of similar foods.

Use % Daily Values

The % Daily Value (%DV) lets you see if a serving of food or beverage is high or low in a particular nutrient, and shows how much a nutrient in a serving of a food contributes to a total daily diet. While there are federal rules for specific key nutrients that impact health to be listed (including calcium, fiber, iron, vitamin D, protein, potassium and fat), manufacturers may decide to voluntarily include additional information on other nutrients as well. You can use the label to support your baby or toddler’s personal dietary needs by choosing foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of the nutrients you may want to limit.

Spot any added sugars

“Total Sugars” includes both sugars naturally found in many healthy foods (such as fruits, vegetables, or milk), as well as any added sugars that are present in the product. “Added Sugarsindicates the amount of sugars added as ingredients or during processing, including sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. (Note: Having the word “includes” before Added Sugars on the label indicates that Added Sugars are included in the number of grams of Total Sugars in the product).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that up until age 2, infants and toddlers should avoid foods and beverages with added sugars completely. For ages 2 and up, no more than 10% of your tot’s total calories should come from added sugars, but many toddlers get far more than that each day.

Understand what those “dates” actually mean

Understanding the dates you find on packaged food labels can help you avoid costly food waste and promote food safety.

  • A “Sell By” date tells the store how long the manufacturer suggests that a store should sell a particular item (such as yogurt and eggs). It is not a safety date, but you should make sure you buy by this date.

  • A “Use By” date tells how long items will be at peak quality. If you buy or use the product after that date, some might be stale or less tasty.

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date tells how long the item will have the best flavor or quality.

  • A “Freeze By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

There is one important exception to these guidelines: Date labels on infant formula products are regulated by the federal government, and infant food products are required to bear a “Use-By” date, up to which the manufacturer has confirmed that the product contains no less than a minimum amount of each nutrient identified on the product label and that the product will be of an acceptable quality.

This is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical advice. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always discuss any health and feeding concerns directly with your pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read above.