What’s in the Food You’re Purchasing? (What You Need to Know & Where to Find It)

Jill Castle, MS, RDN, is a pediatric dietitian/nutritionist and author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She pens The Nourished Child blog and is the voice behind The Nourished Child podcast. Learn more about Jill here.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. The contents of this article are not intended to make health or nutrition claims about our products. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition related activity.

Figuring out the best items for your soccer player to eat isn’t always easy. Sure, whole foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables are obvious good choices, but walk down the grocery aisle and try to pick out grab-n-go snacks and it gets a bit more challenging.

The good news is you don’t have to have a degree in nutrition or a minor in the culinary arts. There are 4 main areas on packaged food products that provide clues about what’s in the food your purchasing: the ingredient list, the Nutrition Facts Panel, and the front of package claims.

Clue #1: The Ingredient List

Just like a homemade recipe, the ingredient list provides a listing of each ingredient included in the product, from whole food ingredients to additives.

Ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount listed first and the least amount used listed last.1 Those ingredients that appear early in the list make up a good portion of the ingredients in the product. For example, if whole grains are listed first, you can bet the product has a lot of them in it.

Some parents are concerned about sugar in the foods they feed their athlete. Sources of sugar in food products may improve taste and offer a quick source of carbohydrate (energy) for activity. On the ingredients list, certain names indicate the presence of sugar: glucose; high fructose corn syrup; corn syrup; agave nectar; barley malt syrup; and dehydrated cane juice, to name a few.

Clue #2: Food Allergens

Eight food allergens have to be identified on any food product regulated by the FDA, according to the Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). These include milk, soy, egg, fish, shellfish, wheat, peanut, and tree nuts. You will see the declaration of allergens in one of two permissible ways. As a “Contains [allergen]” statement immediately following the ingredient list. Also, the food source of the allergen may be identified within the ingredient list, such as “wheat flour,” or in the case the allergen source is not apparent, it must be identified in parentheses following the name of the ingredient, such as “whey (milk)”.

Clue #3: The Nutrition Facts Panel

Your third clue for determining the quality of food to choose for your young athlete is to check out the Nutrition Facts Panel. This back of package information provides the serving size, number of servings within the container, and the calories and nutrient content per serving.

Other notable things to consider:

Nutrients you should limit are listed, and include saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Nutrients to encourage in your child’s diet are also listed, including fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals like vitamin A and C, calcium and iron.

While you aren’t expected to know the daily amounts of nutrients for everyone in your family, you can look to the Daily Value (DV) to help you target good sources of these nutrients. A DV of 20% or more is considered a high source of that nutrient, while a DV of 5% or less is considered a low source.

It’s important to note the DV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which may be higher than your child needs, depending on his or her age. However, using the DV can help you make decisions about the nutrients you may want to increase in your child’s diet. For example, a DV of 20% for calcium means you’re adding a good amount of calcium to the diet, while a DV of 5% for calcium means you’re adding little calcium to the diet.

Clue #4: Front of Package Claims

Health claims on packages are some of the first messages you may see when shopping for food. Catchy statements like “natural,” “supports your immune system,” or “made with whole grains” may sway your purchasing decisions.

Generally, three types of claims exist, each of which must meet regulatory standards according to the FDA: nutrient content claims (i.e., high in calcium), health claims (i.e., adequate calcium and vitamin D, as part of a well-balanced diet, along with physical activity), and structure/ function claims (calcium builds strong bones).

Today, you’ll find food claims demonstrating how a food product was made, whether or not it is “healthy,” and whether it contains any stand-out ingredients. For example, the term “natural” is found on many products, yet it doesn’t have a confirmed definition by the FDA to date. Temporarily, the FDA defines the claim “natural” as having nothing artificial or synthetic added to it (including artificial colors). Even the term “healthy” is regulated (although it’s definition is being re-considered).

“Organic” claims are regulated by the USDA, under the National Organic Program, with a strict set of standards for agricultural production and processing methods.5 Certified products may be labeled “100% Organic,” “Organic,” or when the organic content is at least 70%, a “Made with organic” claim can be made specifying up to three organic ingredients or food groups. All certified organic products are non-GMO.

Some package claims don’t tell the whole story, which can lead to consumer confusion and the purchase of food items that appear more nutritious than they are. It’s always a good idea to look at the entire package rather than make a decision based on front of package claims only.

When trying to make a decision about which product to buy, know that you’ve got four key areas to look at: the ingredient list, the food allergens, the Nutrition Facts Panel, and the front of package claims.

Resources

  1. International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2004, November; Revised 2010, April). Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors. Retrieved from:https://www.fda.gov/food/ingre...
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2018, February) Food Allergies: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/food/resou...[SH9]
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2004, November) How to Understand Nutrition Facts Labels. Retreived from: https://www.fda.gov/food/label...
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2018, January) Front of Package Labeling Initiative Questions & Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ucm202734.htm [CL10]
  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2018, April) Organic Labels Explained. Retrieved from: https://www.ams.usda.govsites/default/files/media/OrganicLabelsExplained.png