Understanding the labels on your food

As consumers, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements for “healthy” foods. Unfortunately, we cannot always trust that the health claims on food packages accurately reflect the true nutritional quality of the food. Looking past the health claims and reading the Nutrition Facts Table and the Ingredients List, will give you a much more accurate picture of nutritional value of the product.

  • Jan. 25, 2011 8:00 p.m.

As consumers, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements for “healthy” foods. Unfortunately, we cannot always trust that the health claims on food packages accurately reflect the true nutritional quality of the food. Looking past the health claims and reading the Nutrition Facts Table and the Ingredients List, will give you a much more accurate picture of nutritional value of the product.

In my experience many people read nutrition labels, but they often do not know what to look for. Here are a few tips to help you choose 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 one slice, while others list per two slices. You also need to compare the serving size to the amount you eat. People often eat more than the 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 natural sugars in fruit and milk products. When reading a label it is important to remember, that four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. It is recommended that we do not exceed 48 grams (or 12 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. This may sound 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 as they can increase “bad” cholesterol levels. Saturated and trans fats are mostly found in fatty meats, high fat dairy products, fried foods, pastries and doughnuts. Your daily intake of saturated and trans fats should be less than a combined total of 20 grams.

Limit salt. Most packaged or canned foods contain added salt, also known as sodium. The recommended sodium intake is no more than 1,500 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 to 38 grams of fibre daily. Look for foods that contain at least three to four grams of fibre per serving.

Read the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by weight. Ingredients at the top of the list are those which the product is primarily made of. Avoid foods that list sugar or hydrogenated oils in the first three 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. Packaged and processed foods are mostly located in the aisles of the store and this is where label reading becomes very important.

Simone Jennings is a registered dietitian with Interior Health.