Making sure your child has a well-balanced diet can be an ongoing struggle. From snack time to mealtime, it’s a challenge to find healthy foods that kids like to eat. And according to St. Louis Children’s Hospital dietitian Tara Todd, not all self-proclaimed healthy snacks or convenience foods are actually good for you. So what’s a parent to do?
“It’s important to know how to read the fine print on a label to recognize nutritional pitfalls such as artificial sweeteners or deceptive phrases like 'all natural,'” says Todd. “Parents have to think like a dietitian before purchasing a new packaged snack from the grocery store.”
Reading Labels like a Dietitian
So how do you decide whether to buy that “all natural” cookie or cereal at the store? Todd shares her insider tips for reading labels like a dietitian:
- Watch out for packaged foods that promote themselves as “all natural.” Most people assume that natural means minimally processed without any hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors or flavorings. If you think about it, all the food we eat comes from the natural products of plants and animals. Therefore, the word “natural” on a label is meaningless. Just because a certain breakfast pastry or sandwich cookie is labeled “all natural” does not automatically mean it is healthy.
- Beware of fake fibers on the ingredient list like inulin, maltodextrin and polydextrose. Fake fibers are ingredients that manufacturers often add to packaged foods to boost the total fiber content per serving. These fibers are injected into all sorts of products—even yogurt or juice. It is unclear whether these isolated fibers have the same healthy benefits and micronutrients found in whole grains or fruit. So, steer clear of the fake stuff and give your kids fiber in the form of a fresh apple or juicy orange.
- Be careful with non-fat ingredients and sugar substitutes. When manufacturers reduce fat in a product, they typically increase the sugar content to compensate for taste. The product may become lower in fat, but will typically have more calories than the original product. In some cases, manufacturers will add artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose to these non-fat foods. Pay close attention to the ingredient list when buying yogurt and canned fruit. Research on artificial sweeteners is unclear, so a good rule of thumb is to minimize the amount children eat.
- Note the first two or three ingredients on labels—these are listed in the order of greatest to least by weight. If the first ingredient on the label is sugar, you know that sugar makes up the greatest percentage of the ingredients.
- Double check portion sizes. What appears to be a single-serving snack may actually be two or three servings.
“Be sure to read labels carefully before putting anything into your grocery cart,” says Todd. “Don’t let convenience foods take over your family’s diet. The bulk of your meals should be comprised of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. As far as pre-packaged snacks and treats go, moderation is the key.”