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Don't scan and click: think inside the box

Understanding food labels is better than using an app

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As a family member reached for an item off the grocery store shelf, I pointed out that it probably wasn't the most nutritious option to take home to her children.

Translation: "Keep that so-called food out of your grocery cart because I know it's swimming in sugar and it's vitamin-deficient, especially considering the thimble-sized container it comes in."

The questions racing around my mind: "Do you actually believe this food will help your kids grow and develop to their full potential? Is it really necessary to get your young kids hooked on sugar if they're perfectly content eating unsweetened, more wholesome products?"

To end our debate, my grocery-shopping companion offered to scan the food in question with a cellphone app in order to find out how it rates nutritionally.

I declined the offer. She placed the item in her cart.

I secretly fumed.

This isn't the first time I've heard people talk about using apps to help them with their nutritional choices.

While some apps can be beneficial tools in promoting good health, I believe we're better off without apps that grade the nutritional value of foods.

Rather than teaching you to know what you're eating, they teach you to mindlessly rely on a particular app without really understanding how to fend for yourself.

The more logical option? Learn to read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Learn how to interpret a label's health claims.

It's not as difficult as it looks.

When I was a kid, I would keep the cereal box on the dining table while I was noshing on breakfast just because I loved to peruse the label.

I may not have understood everything I was reading. (I wondered: "What the heck is thiamine? What's BHT?") But I loved to read, so even the cereal-box ingredients were fascinating.

At around age 11, I had no choice but to learn to understand food labels. That was the year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition in which the body cannot metabolize sugar because the pancreas stops producing insulin.

Too much of the wrong foods could lead me to an early grave or cause serious health complications.

Within days of my diagnosis, a team of Type 1 diabetes educators at the Children's Hospital showed me how to properly understand nutrition labels and today, reading them is second nature to me. It just takes a few seconds. It's amazing what information is right in front of you, no PhD required. And no apps, either.

Here's what to look for when reading food labels:

SERVING SIZE: This is listed at the top of the nutrition facts box and appears in a volume or weight measurement. It's important to look at the listed serving size to see if that's the amount you will eat in a sitting. If you tend to eat twice as much as what the nutrition facts box calls a serving, no problem, just multiply the nutrients (fat, fibre, sugar, vitamins, etc.) by two when calculating how much you're getting in a serving.

CALORIES: If you're watching your weight, it's wise to have an idea about how many calories you're eating every meal. After all, excess calories eventually turn into body fat, although the quality of your calories also matters to your overall health. When you're feeding small children who aren't overweight, calories probably shouldn't be a significant factor in your food decisions for them.

FAT: This is usually listed in gram amounts and divided by type. A food with fewer than five grams of fat in a serving can safely be considered low in fat. And while all fats are calorie-dense and contain the same number of calories per gram, not all fats are nutritionally equal. Saturated fats, for example, tend to narrow your arteries and contribute to heart disease. Trans fats are man-made substances that raise your so-called bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. Unsaturated fats are heart-healthy and can help prevent heart disease. Don't be afraid of fat. Just read the fact box to make sure you're eating the good kind. Keep in mind that eating fat with your carbohydrates lowers the absorption of carbs. It also keeps you feeling fuller longer.

CARBOHYDRATES: All nutrition labels list the total carbohydrate count in a serving. This is further divided into types of carbs: sugars versus fibre. Fibre is not digested, so if you want to find out which carbs raise your blood sugar, for example, subtract fibre from the total carb count. Carbohydrates (except fibre) are a relatively fast-acting fuel for a body. If you want to fuel your body before vigorous exercise, you might want to choose a higher-carb food. (Complex carbs in the form of whole grains are better for your overall health than simple carbs high in glucose or fructose.)

SUGARS: This is a number you should keep an eye on. Sugar -- whether in the form of honey, corn syrup, molasses, glucose, fructose, liquid invert sugar or cane sugar -- will raise your blood glucose level quickly. This can lead to health problems, even narrowed arteries. Sugar, regardless of form, is short on vitamins and minerals. One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams, so if your favourite yogurt contains 23 grams of sugar, that's a total of six teaspoons of the sweet stuff in a serving.

FIBRE: The more the better, for most people. You need almost 30 grams of fibre daily to keep your bowels healthy and your body feeling full longer. Fibre also lowers bad cholesterol.

PROTEIN: This a macronutrient we need to build and keep muscle mass. It also has little effect on blood-sugar levels for most people. I like to eat foods higher in protein frequently.

VITAMINS: Certain key vitamins are listed on nutrition fact boxes in the form of the percentage you should consume daily, according to Health Canada's standards.

INGREDIENT LIST: Don't forget to scan the ingredient list before you add a food to your grocery cart. Ingredients should be listed in order of volume, with the most abundant amounts listed first. Try to avoid foods with sugars at the beginning of the list -- honey, corn syrup, liquid invert sugar, cane sugar, etc. If white flour is listed in your supposedly whole-grain product, it's an indication the food could be lower in fibre. Cross-reference the ingredient list against the nutrient fact box.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2013 D3

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