Nutrition labels are a handy little tool. While some of us may find them confusing, or perhaps will only focus on just a few parts it (how many times do you just look at the number of calories?), by and large the nutrition labels can help us as consumers to make informed choices. Before we get into the details of nutrition labels, it’s still worthwhile to recognize that nutrition labels aren’t the “end-all-be-all”, and the truth is that the really good stuff, like fresh fruits and vegetables, doesn’t have nutrition labels. But the reality is, we still purchase a lot of food that comes in packages, and, by law, this packaging must tell you everything that is in it. This is a good thing because it’s important to know what we are putting into our body!
Essentially, there are three components to a nutrition label: 1) the nutrition facts table, 2) the ingredient list and although not necessarily a part of the nutrition label, but still important to recognize 3) health claims and other advertising. We’ll focus on the nutrition facts table and ingredient list, but health claims and other advertising is worthwhile to acknowledge since most, if not all, packaged food has health claims that may influence our purchasing decisions. Food products may claim to be low-fat, fat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, contains omega-3’s, and the list goes on and on. This is mostly just advertising. For example, you can say that refined white sugar is cholesterol-free or fat-free. And while true, we know that refined sugar is still harmful to our health. So please, be wary of products that have health claims!
Okay, let’s get into the good stuff. I’m sure most of us are familiar with nutrition facts table and ingredient lists. I’ll say this right off the bat, the ingredient list is key and perhaps the most important piece of information you can look at on food packages. Think of the ingredient list as your primary resource and the nutrition facts table as a secondary resource.
The ingredient list will list all the ingredients (including the ones you can’t pronounce!) in order of weight, by heaviest to lightest. Often this means that many of the ingredients that are used the most are listed at the beginning. For example, the ingredient list for cereal will list enriched wheat flour (or a wheat-based product) first and you’ll also probably see sugar close to the beginning of the list. Flavours will be listed towards the end. What is interesting about this is that since chemicals (e.g. flavours and colours) do not weigh much, they are always listed at the end.
Tips with ingredient lists:
- When wheat-based products such as crackers, cereal and breads list “enriched”, this means the wheat has been processed to the point that nutrients are lost, and then they have to “enrich” the product by adding it back. Basically, this is a tip for knowing the product is refined so try to avoid it when you can.
- Whenever you see “hydrogenated”, “partially-hydrogenated”, “modified” or “partially-modified” especially with oils, please, please, please avoid these products! This oil has been chemically treated to the point that our body can’t process this food and it causes oxidative stress. These altered fats, such as trans fat is man-made and it is among of the worst food we can ask our bodies to digest. Did you know that trans fat displaces omega-3 fats in our brain? Avoid at all costs!
- Also, did you know there are over 250 different names for sugar? When reading an ingredient list, be cautious of all the times sugar is listed in different names. For example, granola bars may list sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, fructose and molasses. This is where the nutrition facts table can be a good secondary resource to see the total grams of sugar.
- In Canada, food companies typically list high-fructose corn syrup as glucose-fructose. HFCS is one of the worst types of sugar we can ingest.
- Watch out for long ingredient lists! Usually, the more ingredients named, the more processed it is. A general rule of thumb is to choose products with 5 ingredients or less. This may be useful for some food products, but not all, so keep in mind the next tip…
- Avoid food products with ingredients you can’t pronounce. If you look at the ingredient list and have a hard time knowing or even pronouncing the ingredients, then put it down and move on! These ingredients come from a lab, not a farm.
“You can take a 2 pound bag of sugar and slap a label on it that says ‘100% fat free’ and while factually true; this is unbelievably misleading” – Food Matters
To learn more about how to read ingredient lists and understand what food additives are and why they are used, Dr. Diana Minich has a handy little book called “An A-Z Guide to Food Additives”. In this book is where you can learn tips like why lecithin is always in chocolate, what additives are okay to consume, what to avoid, and descriptions for various additives. I highly recommend it and you can learn more about it in our Library section on the blog. Dr Minich provides a good list of 12 additives to avoid in an ideal world:
- Salt (sodium chloride)
- Sugar (watch for the seemingly endless names for sugar!)
- Trans fat (partially hydrogenated oils)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Artificial anything (colours, flavours, sweeteners)
- Nitrates and nitrites
- Fat substitutes
- Potassium bromate
- White flour
As for nutrition facts tables, these little tables are helpful, although they don’t paint the whole picture and the DV% (percentage of daily value) is typically are not helpful to many of us. Here is a picture from the Cleveland Clinic that provides information on each part of the nutrition facts table:
As for what’s important, here are a few tips with nutrition facts tables:
- Calories. Yes it’s helpful to see how many calories are in a product, but not all calories are equal. Choose calories that are loaded with nutrition! Empty calories don’t contain as many nutrients and this can leave our body hungry (even after eating a meal), and so we will probably continue to search for food (…overeating) until we get all the nutrition we need.
- Check out the serving size. This can be a tricky one. The nutrition facts table is based on the serving size. So if a company decides to say that a serving size is only half the granola bar or half the bottle of juice, but you eat/drink the whole thing, then double the information in the nutrition facts table (e.g. double the calories, sugar, etc.). I usually look at the serving size first.
- Sugar. Sugar is represented in the amount of total carbohydrates and then also shows the grams of total sugar (including added sugar). Checking this out is helpful! While there isn’t a formal recommended amount or limit of sugar, keeping your daily intake down will greatly support your health.
- As you can see, only certain vitamins and minerals are highlighted. Keep in mind that there are many, many more vitamins and minerals we need to include in our diet!
Please note… this is a reference! I recommend to first read the ingredient list and then check out the nutrition facts table to see total grams of protein, sugar, fat, and calories.
If you’re in Canada and are interested to learn more about the nutrition facts table, click here.
Some final tips:
- When shopping, try to avoid the center aisles of grocery stores. This is where all the packaged food is!
- Try not to be fooled by marketing and packaging. There is a lot of thought and research that goes into packaging to send you messages about what the food is all about. For example, ever notice how “children’s food” is brightly coloured? Or how more natural products use fewer colours? I like to imagine what the grocery store would look like if all packaging came in black and white packages!
- Shop at farmers market and often as you can and, whenever possible, choose foods that are not processed and packaged for storage. The more you can do this the more you will be benefitting our planet and your bodies at the same time.