Nutrients to Get Less Of
6 - 8
This lesson introduces sodium and sugar as dietary nutrients we should consume less of. Students will identify the foods and beverages they should limit and recognize how to use the Nutrition Facts label to measure sodium and sugar intake. Grades 6-8
Two 45-minute activities
- Assortment of beverages or beverage containers. You can also use images or photos of individual beverages with their Nutrition Facts labels. Suggested beverages to include are:
- Bottle of water
- Can of regular soda
- 20 fl. oz. bottle of regular soda
- Oversized container of soda
- 20 fl. oz. bottle of diet soda
- Coffee drink (frothed and iced, with added sugar and cream). Note: These beverages can be purchased in bottles at most grocery and convenience stores.
- Various juices (mixed vegetable juices, green juices, citrus juices)
- Energy drink
- Lemonade or iced tea drink
- Sports drink
- Chocolate-sweetened milk beverage
- Yogurt smoothie
- Resealable plastic bags containing sugar
- How Much Sugar is in Your Drink? handouts, one per student
- Snack foods or snack food images. Choose foods on the market that your students most likely eat. Ideas include:
- medium banana (7 to 7.9 inches long; approximately 118 grams)
- 12 ounce can of diet soda
- 3 ounce bag of sunflower seeds
- 1.5 ounce bag of regular potato chips
- 1 ounce bag of baked potato chips
- 1 large order of fast food fries (approximately 5.6 ounces)
- 1 ounce of pretzels (thin, classic)
- 1 smoked beef stick – approximately 1 ounce
- 1 8-ounce can of vegetable juice
- Table salt
- Resealable plastic bags
- Smll bags measuring 2 inches x 2 inches are ideal. They can often be found at craft stores
- Sodium in Snack Foods handout, one copy per student
- Copies of FDA’s Fact Sheet: Sodium in Your Diet — Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake
carbohydrate: an organic compound that is the main source of energy for the body; composed of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms
fiber: isolated, non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects in humans
sodium: the chemical element of atomic number 11, a soft silver-white reactive metal of the alkali metal group
starch: an odorless tasteless white substance occurring widely in plant tissue and obtained chiefly from cereals and potatoes
sugar: any of the class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues and exemplified by glucose and sucrose
Did You Know?
- Ingredients on the Nutrition Facts label are listed in descending order by weight – the closer they are to the beginning of the list, the more of that ingredient is in the food.
- Beverages such as lemonade and sports drinks usually have less sugar when compared to the same quantity of regular soda.
- Larger amounts of the same sweetened beverage have more calories, so if you want to consume a particular sweetened beverage, consider selecting a smaller container.
- Even though juices contain some nutrients, juices (even 100% juices) can contribute just as many calories to your diet as other sweetened beverages.
- Sweetened beverages like soda typically contain little or no nutrients.
Background Agricultural Connections
Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers. The recommended daily value for all carbohydrates is 300 grams (based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet). Although most people consume enough carbohydrates, many people consume too much added sugar and refined starches and not enough fiber.
Sugars are the smallest and simplest type of carbohydrate. They are easily digested and absorbed by the body. There are two types of sugars, and most foods contain some of each kind. Single sugars (monosaccharides) are small enough to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. They include fructose, glucose, and galactose. Sugars that contain two molecules of sugar linked together (disaccharides) are broken down in your body into single sugars. They include:
- Sucrose (table sugar) = glucose + fructose
- Lactose (milk sugar) = glucose + galactose
- Maltose (malt sugar) = glucose + glucose
Starches are made up of many glucose units linked together into long chains. Starches are found naturally in foods such as vegetables (e.g., potatoes, carrots), grains (e.g., brown rice, oats, wheat, barley, corn), and beans and peas (e.g., kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, split peas). Refined starches (e.g., corn starch) can be added to foods during processing or cooking as thickeners and stabilizers.
Fiber, or dietary fiber, is a type of carbohydrate made up of many sugar molecules linked together. But unlike other carbohydrates (such as starch), dietary fiber is bound together in such a way that it cannot be readily digested in the small intestine. Dietary fiber is found in bran, whole grain foods (such as whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, and brown rice), fruits, vegetables, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds.
Sugars are found naturally in many nutritious foods and beverages. They are also added to foods and beverages during processing and preparation, or are consumed separately. Naturally occurring sugars are found in a variety of foods, including:
- Fruits (fresh, frozen, dried or canned in 100% fruit juices)
- 100% fruit juices
- Dairy products
Added sugars are often found in foods such as:
- Baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, pies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries
- Dairy desserts, such as ice cream, other frozen desserts, and puddings
- Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and flavored beverages
- Sugars, jams, syrups, and sweet toppings
What Sugars Do
Sugars provide calories and supply energy for the body. Each gram of sugar provides 4 calories. Your body breaks down sugars into glucose. Glucose in the blood (often referred to as blood sugar) is the primary energy source for your cells, tissues, and organs. Your body can use this glucose immediately, or it can store small amounts in your liver and muscles to use when needed later.
Sugars (both naturally occurring and those added to foods and beverages) increase the risk of cavities (also known as “dental caries”). In addition, consuming high levels of added sugar from products such as packaged foods and beverages can contribute to excess calories with little nutritional benefit.
Identifying Added Sugars
The amount of total sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label includes those that occur naturally in the food or beverage as well as any added sugars. Added sugars are used to sweeten, preserve, or improve the functional attributes of food, such as viscosity, texture, body, color, and browning capability. Added sugars are included on the ingredient list on food and beverage packages. Some examples are: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar.
All About Sodium
Sodium is an essential nutrient and is needed by the human body in relatively small amounts (provided that substantial sweating does not occur). Sodium maintains a balance of body fluids, keeps muscles and nerves running smoothly, and helps certain organs work properly. As a food ingredient, sodium has multiple uses, such as for curing meat, baking, thickening, retaining moisture, enhancing flavor (including the flavor of other ingredients, like making sweets taste sweeter), and as a preservative.
Salt and Sodium Defined
The words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Salt (also known by its chemical name sodium chloride) is a crystal-like compound that is abundant in nature and is used to flavor and preserve food. Sodium is a mineral and one of the chemical elements found in salt.
Most people in the U.S. eat too much salt. Salt contains sodium, and too much sodium can raise blood pressure – which can have serious health consequences if not treated.
- The daily recommendation for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day.
- The average daily intake of sodium for Americans 2 years and older is about 3,440 mg.
- The amount of sodium the body needs each day is 1,500 mg.
The Nutrition Facts label on food and beverage packages is a useful tool for making healthy dietary choices and monitoring how much sodium is in a food. Many restaurant websites also have nutrient information for their menu items.
FDA requires nutrition information about a food that has a nutrient claim, such as “low sodium.” In addition, in the future, FDA will require certain nutrition information, including information on sodium, on standard menu items in many restaurants and similar retail food establishments.
Most of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from the following foods:
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Burritos and tacos
- Savory snacks*
- Eggs and omelets
*Chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers
Check the Label! High levels of sodium may seem “hidden” in packaged food, particularly when a food doesn’t “taste” salty – but sodium is not hidden on the Nutrition Facts label!
- The Nutrition Facts label lists the Percent Daily Value (%DV) of sodium in one serving of a food.
- The DV for sodium has been slightly lowered to 2,300 mg for the new Nutrition Facts label.
- Often, one package of food may contain more than one serving. So, if a package contains two servings and you eat the entire package, you have consumed twice the amount of sodium listed on the label (in other words, you’ve consumed double the %DV).
Use the Percent Daily Value (%DV) to compare sodium in different products. The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet.
- 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is low
- 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is high
- Project an example food label on the board for students to see. Point out that the label indicates the nutritional content of the food contained in the package.
- Ask students if there are nutrients in our diet that should be consumed in quantities of "more" or "less." (yes)
- To pre assess student knowledge and perceptions, begin at the top of the label and work your way down asking students to give you a "thumbs up" if the nutrient should be consumed in relatively higher quantities and a "thumbs down" if the nutrient should be consumed in relatively lower quantities. For example, "Should calories be consumed in higher or lower quantities?" Then, "Should fat be consumed in higher or lower quantities?" (...continue through the label)
- Once students have indicated their prior knowledge, inform them that we will be focusing on sodium and sugar to learn why they are nutrients we should generally consume less of.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Sugar in Beverages
- Gather beverages or beverage containers for the activity. There is a wide variety of sugar-sweetened beverages on the market. Feel free to use as many or as few for this activity as you would like, but always include one sample of water and one sample of diet soda, each with 0 grams of sugar. A suggested list can be found in the Materials section.
- Create resealable plastic bags with corresponding amounts of sugar. For each beverage, measure sugar into a bag to represent the exact amount of sugar in the entire beverage container according to the Nutrition Facts label. (Note: The container may contain more than one serving.) To determine the number of teaspoons of sugar in each beverage:
- Find the amount of sugars on the Nutrition Facts label. Determine the number of servings in 1 container of the product and multiply the number of grams of sugars by the number of servings in each container to get the total amount of sugars per container.
- There are 4.2 grams of sugar in 1 teaspoon. Divide the grams of sugar calculated in step a above by 4.2 to determine the number of teaspoons of sugar in the beverage container.
- Note: If you have a gram scale, you can weigh out precisely the number of grams of sugar (same as the grams of carbohydrates for most products), and place the sugar in separate resealable plastic bags.
- Measure out the number of teaspoons (or grams) of sugar in each beverage with a household teaspoon measure (or scale) and place in separate resealable plastic bags.
- Label each bag of sugar with a letter that corresponds with a corresponding numbered beverage container.
- Print one copy of the attached How Much Sugar is in Your Drink? handout for each student.
- Engage the students by asking them to name their favorite drink. Record the list on the board.
- Go through the list and ask students if they consider each beverage to be "healthy" or "nutritious."
- Ask students if any of the beverages are high in sugar. Continue the discussion by asking students questions such as:
- How much energy (calories) do carbohydrates supply?
- What are the different kinds of carbohydrates?
- Which carbohydrates are more nutrient-dense?
- What do you think is the recommended daily value for all carbohydrates?
- How much sugar would you expect to find in a can of soda, an energy drink, etc.?
- How many grams of sugar do you think are in this bag? (Hold up one bag.)
- Arrange the beverages and the bags of sugar so that students can circulate around them. Give each student 1 copy of the How Much Sugar is in Your Drink? handout.
- Instruct students to look at each beverage container and use their handouts to record which bag of sugar they believe goes with each beverage container.
- Once students finish, discuss which bag of sugar correctly matches each container. Ask for volunteers to read the amount of sugar on the Nutrition Facts label and then correctly match the beverage with the bag of sugar for illustration.
- Optional, have the class perform the calculations to determine the number of teaspoons of sugar in each of the products.
- Summarize findings by asking students:
- How much energy (calories) do carbohydrates supply? (4 calories per gram)
- What are the different kinds of carbohydrates? (starches, sugars, and fiber)
- Which carbohydrates are more nutrient-dense? (starches and fiber)
- What is the daily value for all carbohydrates based on a 2,000-calorie diet? (300 grams. However, for a 2,500-calorie diet, the daily value for all carbohydrates is 375 grams.)
- How do the total sugar and added sugar in beverages affect your body and overall health? (Consuming more calories than one burns leads to weight gain.)
- Remind students: Sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars are not intended to be reduced in isolation, but as a part of a healthy dietary pattern that is balanced, as appropriate, in calories.
- Which drinks have the most total and added sugar? Which have the least sugar?
- Were you surprised by any of the findings?
- What changes could you make in your choices of beverages?
- Why is it important to read the labels of the foods and beverages you consume?
- What are some ways to limit added sugar intake?
- Choose foods that are more nutrient-dense. Nutrient-dense foods include fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, unsalted nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
- Look for added sugars on the ingredient list on a food package or on the Nutrition Facts label. Limit foods that are high in added sugar, and if you do eat them, consume smaller portions. These foods, such as grain-based and dairy desserts and sweet snacks, tend to be higher in calories and low in valuable nutrients.
- Choose whole fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, or canned in 100% fruit juice) as snacks, salads, or desserts.
- Try unsweetened or no-sugar added versions of fruit sauces (e.g., applesauce) and yogurt.
- Instead of sugars, syrups, and other sweet toppings, use fruit to top foods such as cereal and pancakes.
- More often, choose options such as water or fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk. Less often, choose options that are high in calories but have few or no beneficial nutrients, such as energy drinks, fruit drinks, soft drinks, and sports drinks.
- Limit the amount of sugar you add to foods when cooking, baking, or at the table.
Activity 2: Sodium in Snack Foods
- Prepare one resealable bag to represent the salt found in each example snack food. Find the amount of sodium in one serving on the snack’s Nutrition Facts label, or from a website such as the USDA FoodData Central.
- Use a milligram scale to weigh out the amount of salt for each bag. Write the amount on each bag.
- Make copies of the Sodium in Snack Foods handout, 1 per student
- Optional: Make student copies of FDA’s Fact Sheet: Sodium in Your Diet — Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake, which can be downloaded from the following website
- Explain to students that virtually all Americans consume more sodium than they need. Sodium is primarily consumed as salt (sodium chloride). Engage your students by either asking students the following questions or giving them copies of FDA’s Fact Sheet: Sodium in Your Diet — Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake.
- Ask students what their favorite snacks are. Next, ask them:
- What is sodium?
- What important functions does sodium have in the body?
- What effect does sodium have on blood pressure?
- How much sodium do most people consume daily?
- Which foods contain the most sodium?
- Give each student one copy of the Sodium in Snack Foods handout. Have the students match the bags of sodium with the images of the snack food and record their answers on the worksheet.
- Note: If all of your snack foods do not match those pictured on the worksheet, have students use their own sheet of paper to list the snack foods used in your class and match them to the correct sodium measurement.
- Once finished, discuss which bag of sodium (salt) correctly matches each image or snack food.
- To summarize and review, ask students:
- What is the recommended daily limit for sodium? (2,300 mg)
- Where does most of the sodium in our diet come from? (Over 70% of dietary sodium comes from processed and packaged foods.)
- What foods are higher in sodium, and what foods have less sodium? (Most of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from the following foods: Breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soups, burritos and tacos, savory snacks [chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers], chicken, cheese, and eggs and omelets. Fresh fruits and vegetables are examples of foods that are lower in sodium.)
- What are some ways to reduce sodium intake? (See attached handout, Start the Shake-Down: Easy Tips for Cutting Sodium)
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Food labels help determine specific foods that meet nutritional needs or exceed recommended daily allowances.
- Sodium and sugar are nutrients that should be monitored and not consumed in excess for a healthy diet.
Keep a beverage diary.
Have students create posters to advertise healthy beverage choices.
Review advertisements and packaging for beverages; identify marketing strategies and their influences on our choices.
Incorporate math into the activity for exploration of additional nutrients (beyond just sugar):
- Identify other nutrients in the beverages and calculate the percent of daily recommended intake of these nutrients.
- Foster the discussion: Many students have something to drink in place of other snacks, and even a meal in some cases. Ask your students if they drink anything that is more nutrient-dense than options with “empty” calories. As an exercise, students could compare and contrast desired nutrients, such as protein, calcium, and vitamins, in beverages with varying nutrient density.
As an alternative activity, or in coordination with the sodium activity, have the students look at the saturated fat (grams) and the number of calories in each of the snack foods. The students could then use these three sets of data to determine the most nutrient-dense foods (healthy snacks). One way the students could do this would be to rank the foods from lowest to highest in the amount of sodium; then with the number of calories; and finally, with the saturated fat. For example, students can look at one sample of vegetable juice with 70 calories, no fat, and 677 mg of sodium (28% DV). This would not be a good choice. If they were to consider a banana (with 105 calories, 1 mg of sodium, and 0 grams of saturated fat), then this would be a better choice. Use the data gathered in Activity 2.
Show the video clip, Your Food is Trying to Tell You Something!
The Science and Our Food Supply: Using the Nutrition Facts Label to Make Healthy Food Choices (2017) was brought to you by the Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Recommended Companion Resources
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
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