What's in your food?

Understanding how to read a food label can help you make healthier choices.

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Healthy eating starts with having healthy foods in your home. But with so many options, knowing what to choose can be a challenge.

In order to make things easier, the federal government has developed a series of food labelling regulations to help consumers understand what they are buying when they do their grocery shopping.

Almost all packaged foods sold in Canadian stores contain a nutrition facts table and a list of ingredients. In addition, there are regulations concerning the nutrition and health claims made in food packaging. The labelling guidelines and regulations were developed by Health Canada and are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The information provided on nutrition labels can be extremely helpful. For example, the labelling can let you know if one can of soup is higher in sodium than another. It can also help you determine just how many calories there are in a bottle of pop.

It is important to read the labels of the goods you buy because looks can sometimes be deceiving. A loaf of multigrain bread, may appear to be a healthy choice at first glance. But a look at the nutrition facts table and ingredients may reveal that the food you are about to buy is low in fibre and contains enriched white flour instead of whole grain flour.

Here is a summary of information labels found on food packages and how they can help you make better choices:

Nutrition Facts Table

This label contains details on the calories and some nutrients for a particular amount of a food. The standard format - it is usually prominently displayed on a white background on the back of a food package or can - makes it easy to locate and compare products. While the nutrition facts table is mandatory for most packaged groceries, certain foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, fish, poultry and raw meat (except where meat is ground), and foods prepared or processed at the store that contain few ingredients, are exempt. The table includes:

Serving size: The serving size is the specific amount of food on which all the nutrient information is based. It will be given in common household measures, such as a cup or 1 slice of bread, and in metric measures like grams (g) or millilitres (ml). It is important to refer to this amount when comparing products. The amount identified on the label may or may not be the same serving size as in Canada's Food Guide or the amount you eat at home. The portion at home may be different depending on the size of the bowl, plate or glass being used.

Calories: Calories are the amount of energy in a food. On the nutrition facts table, they are listed based on serving size. For example, a one ounce serving of potato chips may provide 150 calories, but a whole bag may contain 7 servings or over 1,000 calories.

Mandatory core nutrients: The amount of a nutrient is listed in both grams (g) or milligrams (mg) and as a percentage (%) of daily value for 13 core nutrients. This information helps you determine if a particular food product meets your nutritional needs.

% Daily Value (%DV): This value puts nutrients on a scale from 0 per cent to 100 per cent. The daily values are based on the average needs of a healthy adult consuming a 2,000-calorie diet. So your requirements may be higher or lower, based on your calorie needs. The scale gives you the ability to tell whether there is a lot or a little of a specific nutrient in the food and is most useful when comparing products. A DV of 5% or less is a little, and DV of 15% or more is a lot.

Ingredient list

Usually located in smaller print on the side of packages, food ingredients are listed by weight, from the most to the least. The ingredient in the largest amount is listed first. The list of ingredients helps identify sources of certain nutrients such as added sugars and is helpful for people with allergies. Ideally, the ingredient list should not look like a chemistry experiment, but more like a recipe. When you see honey instead of high-fructose corn syrup, or herbs/spices instead of artificial flavours, it suggests the manufacturers are using ingredients that you might use if you were doing the cooking.

Nutrient content claims

Often found at the front of the package, nutrient content claims are optional and usually amount to two or three words about certain nutrients found in the food, such as calcium, fibre, and fat. Phrases such as "low-fat," "low-sodium," "light" and "organic" are standardized. If a food uses one of these terms, it meets the criteria for that term. For example, to be able to say the product is "high in fibre" the product must have 4 g or more of fibre per serving.

Health claims

These claims are also optional and usually refer to how a particular food affects health or reduces disease risk. For example, a label may say: "This food is a good source of calcium. Adequate intake of calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis." Health claims must be based on current, reliable scientific studies and approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But just because a food label has a health claim, it does not mean that the food is healthier for you. A food that is labelled "a good source of calcium" may still be high in fat, salt, or sugar. Before checking out, take time to read labels carefully and follow these tips:

  • Take time to read the labels of the groceries you toss in your cart. The nutrition facts table and ingredient list enable you to compare products based on key nutrients.
  • Focus on the nutrients that are most important to you when comparing products.
  • Be cautious of health claims or advertising on the front of the package, and look for recognizable ingredients.
  • Include more whole foods and less processed foods. Remember, fresh fruits and vegetables don't even have a label.

Your best assurance of a healthy diet is to eat a variety of lean meats and proteins including beans and lentils, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, while keeping calories, saturated and trans fat, as well as sodium and added sugar to a minimum.

For more information on label reading or to speak to a registered dietitian in Manitoba to get answers about food, nutrition and healthy eating, call 204-788-8248 or 1-877-830-2892.

Coralee Hill is a registered dietitian and the clinical lead for Manitoba's Dial-a-Dietitian program.

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