Wise Buys

Food product labels take the mystery out of grocery shopping.

Wise Buys

Photo: Gerri Photography


Do you ever have a moment of “confused shopper’s syndrome” when you go to the grocery store? Do you find yourself overwhelmed by the claims and information found on food products? Reading Egyptian hieroglyphics might seem easier.

Don’t give up; you can crack the food label code. Standardized nutrition labels on most prepackaged foods make it easy to compare products. Just look for the three ‘go-to places’ on the label to help you separate food fact from fiction:

1. Nutrition Facts appear in a table on each product, and help you compare the nutrition benefits between food items. The ‘facts’ table includes:

√  A serving size listed at the top, which is the typical amount the manufacturer estimates a person would eat at one sitting. All of the calorie and nutrient counts that follow are based on eating this serving size. If you eat more than the given serving size, the amount of calories, nutrients, fats and sugars will also be higher than listed on the label. So if your children want an extra bowl of breakfast cereal, remember they will be eating added amounts of calories and sugar as well.

√  Calories, which tell you how much energy you get from one serving of the food. You should not solely rely on the calorie count, but use it in tandem with other nutrition information found on the label. Eating Well With Canada’s Food Guide (www.healthcanada.gc.ca/foodguide) tells you how many servings of foods you should get each day based on your gender and age, so use it to determine your daily food intake.

√  A list of nutrients that are contained in the product. Fat (saturated and trans), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates (fibres and sugars), proteins, vitamins (Vitamin A and C), and minerals (calcium and iron) are given as a weight (usually grams or milligrams) or a percent daily value.

√  Percent (%) Daily Value, which lists the amount of nutrients on a scale from zero to 100 percent. This can help you determine if there is a little or a lot of a nutrient in one serving of a packaged food. For instance, if one serving of the food contains 5% Daily Value (DV) of sodium, it is considered low (many soups, for example, have 30% or more DV).

Some nutrients are better for you than others. Foods that are high in fibre, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron are better for you, so look for high % Daily Value in these nutrients. You should choose foods with low amounts of % Daily Value for saturated fat and trans fat combined (less than 10% DV), sugar and sodium/salt (less than 5% DV). In the case of cereal and granola bars, look for products containing 10 grams or less of sugar.

There are naturally-occurring trans fats in dairy products and meat, which is not a concern if you choose lower fat and leaner products. However, when choosing spreads, baked goods, packaged snack/convenience foods, and ready-to-eat and 
frozen foods, aim for zero trans fat or reduce your 

intake as much as possible. Many companies are already removing trans fat from their products, given growing scientific evidence that ties it to increased risk of heart disease.

2. Ingredient Lists tell you what is inside the food product. Ingredients are listed by weight (from the most to the least), meaning the first ingredient is the most common one found in the product. So if you see sugar, salt, or fat listed as the first or second ingredient in a product, you are probably best to avoid buying it. If you have a food allergy, use the ingredient list to avoid items that you should not eat.
Be aware that food additives may also pose an allergy risk. Food additives are regulated by Health Canada, and are used by manufacturers to enhance their product. Food additives will show up in the ingredient list, but may sometimes appear as different names. For instance, MSG (monosodium glutamate) can also be listed as hydrolysed vegetable protein or hydrolysed plant protein.

3. Nutrition Claims are optional, and highlight a certain item of interest about the food. Some claims will state ‘sodium-free’ or ‘good source of fibre,’ highlighting that the food is high or low in a certain nutrient. Another type of nutrition claim is a general statement that links what you eat to your overall health.

While nutrition claims are regulated by Health Canada, and must meet strict criteria before they are allowed on a food package, do not solely rely on them. A food may be labelled “fat-free” for instance, but still be high in sugar.

Making the time – and effort – to understand food labels can help you make wise buys at the grocery store. That is good for you, and your family too.

Author: Sarah Tsang

Sarah Tsang is a registered dietitian with the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.

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