When 10-year-old Marie Grandguillotte goes grocery shopping with her mother, she reads the food labels. She looks for calories and ingredients and knows to avoid fat and cholesterol.
Reading the food labels was "a little bit confusing, but after a while I got used to it," said the fifth-grader from suburban Doral.
Nutrition experts and the Food and Drug Administration think there should be more kids like Marie. They advocate teaching children to read food labels themselves instead of relying on mom and dad.
"Since I find parents are not doing a bang-up job (teaching nutrition), I think it's important to empower the children with their own information," said Miami registered dietitian Ronni Litz Julien.
The FDA partnered with the Cartoon Network earlier this year to launch a public education campaign encouraging children ages 9 to 13 — or tweens — to read the nutrition facts on food labels.
An interactive Web page on the Cartoon Network's Web site teaches kids to avoid foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar and consume more foods with potassium, fiber, iron and calcium. It offers information on serving sizes and calories (40 calories is low, 100 is moderate and 400 is high).
"We learned that tweens are able to cognitively understand food labels, they're making food choices on their own, they want independence, yet they're still influenced by their parents," said Carrie Ainsworth, education outreach specialist for the FDA.
The agency will launch a campaign for parents next year reinforcing the same message, she said.
Another shopper, Sofia Rachi, 10, said she always reads foods labels and likes to look at the colored boxes, but when pressed, the youngster admitted she didn't "really know what to look for."
Though the labels can be tricky even for adults, some nutrition experts say it is reasonable for children to grasp the concept by focusing on a few components.
Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian in New York and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, taught her 9-year-old son to read the nutrition labels on cereal boxes.
"I don't think it's unrealistic," said Zied. "He knows when you're looking at cereal label that we're looking for high fiber, low sugar."
Lillian Tabacinic sent her son Eli to a nutritionist to learn about portion control and food labels when he put on weight after breaking a leg. But it took two years before he really grasped it, the Bal Harbour resident said.
"It takes awhile until they can mature to a point where they can understand it's not healthy," Tabacinic said.
Now 11, Eli is eating healthier, not using his allowance for junk food and exercising three times a week.