Consumer Label Reading 101

As consumers we are constantly bombarded with marketing ploys advertising ‘healthy’ foods. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the health claims on the front of a food package. You get the real dirt on a product by looking past the health claims and reading the Nutrition Facts Table and the Ingredients List. All packaged foods are required to have both.

  • Jan. 31, 2011 2:00 p.m.

As consumers we are constantly bombarded with marketing ploys advertising ‘healthy’ foods. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the health claims on the front of a food package. You get the real dirt on a product by looking past the health claims and reading the Nutrition Facts Table and the Ingredients List. All packaged foods are required to have both.

In my experience many people read nutrition labels, but often do not know really know what they are looking for, or they focus on the wrong nutrients. Here are a few tips for choosing healthy foods:

Check the serving size. If you know the serving size you can accurately compare foods to make the healthiest choice. Remember serving sizes are not standard. For example, some loaves of bread list the nutrients per 1 slice, while others list per 2 slices. You also need to compare the serving size to the amount you eat. People often eat more than serving size on the label.

Look for added sugars. Many foods that appear healthy such as cereal, granola bars and fruit flavoured yogurt are high in added sugars. Added sugars do not include the natural sugars in fruit and milk products. 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. It is recommended to limit added sugars to 48 grams (12 teaspoons) or less per day. This sounds like a lot of sugar but it adds up fast. One can of pop contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Watch for saturated and trans fat. It is important to limit these fats day as they can increase ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. These fats are mostly found in fatty meats, high fat dairy products, fried foods, pastries and doughnuts. Your daily intake should be less than 20 grams of saturated and trans fat combined.

Limit Salt. Most packaged or canned foods contain added sodium. It is recommended to limit sodium intake to 1500 milligrams per day. Look for products that state ‘no added salt’ and rinse canned foods before eating.

Choose high fibre foods. Adults should consume 25-38 grams of fibre daily. Look for foods that contain at least 3-4 grams of fibre per serving.

Read the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by weight. Foods at the top of the list are what the product is primarily made of. Avoid foods that list sugar or hydrogenated oils in the first 3 ingredients.

Of course there are ways to fill your cart with healthy foods without ever looking at a label.

If you shop the perimeter of the grocery store and choose only whole foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, and low fat dairy products your diet will likely be high in fibre and low in added sugars and salts. The packaged and processed foods are mostly in the aisles of the store and this is where label reading is required.

For more information visit Health Canada’s website and check out the new interactive label reading tools www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/nutrition/index-eng.php