Ideally, I would like this post to be a two-second read – don’t eat prepackaged foods! This way, you wouldn’t need to learn how to read nutrition labels. Unfortunately, this isn’t our reality. As much as I would like everyone (including myself) to make all of their foods from scratch, we know that’s not possible in this day and age. Besides the fact that it takes TIME to prepare the staples in our diets, it also requires skill. Over the last few years I have learned to make foods like yogurt, chicken broth, and bread, so I don’t have to rely on their commercially made counterparts. However, there are still foods that I buy premade, and will likely continue to purchase in the foreseeable future. For this reason, we need to understand what nutrition labels are and how to read them.
Nutrition labels are legally required to be on most packaged items in Canada and must appear in a specified format. You won’t find labels on fresh fruits and veggies, raw meat and poultry (unless it’s ground), raw fish and seafood, foods prepared/processed at a store (e.g. bakery items, salads), foods with only a few ingredients (e.g. tea, coffee, spices), and alcoholic beverages. It’s important to understand a few basic concepts about label reading so that you can a) have a good idea of what kinds and quantities of nutrients are found in different products, and b) compare different brands of the same product to make the most informed purchase. Label reading becomes more important when health problems require you to keep tabs on specific nutrients.
Look at the serving size: The serving size is probably the most important component to check for on a nutrition label. This indicates the volume of food on which the nutrient table is based. Realistically think about how much you will actually eat at one sitting and compare it to the serving size; if the answer is double, then you have to double all of the quantities of the nutrients listed below. Companies don’t have to adhere to a standard serving size, so a loaf of bread can be labeled per 1 slice or 2 slices. Remember that the so-called “junk foods” tend to have smaller serving sizes than are normally consumed, so you will likely have to double or even triple the nutrition information listed to get an accurate idea of what you are eating.
Calories: The first section of the label contains the amount of calories per serving size. People tend to get caught up in the calories because the school of thought is that calories in must equal calories out in order to maintain weight. However, it is not that simple. Calorie counting can help with weight goals, but it is really the quality of the calories that counts. Your body requires essential nutrients that are used for repair, maintenance and growth, and that can only be done if you feed your self with nutrient rich foods. By eating a food of equal calories but devoid of nutrients, you’re doing your body a disservice and likely will not meet or maintain your health goals.
Nutrient breakdown: Thirteen core nutrients must be represented on the label in terms of grams and percent daily value. The nutrients listed include fat (saturated, trans, cholesterol), sodium, carbohydrate (fibre, sugars), protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Other nutrients can be added on the label, but they are optional according to government regulations. The grams indicate the actual weight of the nutrient in the product, per serving size. This can be hard to put into context if you are new at reading labels, but it does give you a platform to compare products to each other. The percent daily value is based on a 2000-calorie diet of an “average” adult. It tells us how much of the recommended daily intake is provided in a serving of a certain product. For example, if a product contains 75 mg of sodium per ¾ cup serving, you will be consuming 3% of the required sodium needed for an average adult in one day. Although the theory behind this calculation is logical, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the majority of the population. Caloric requirements change depending on age, gender, physical activity, health issues, health goals, and much more. A good rule of thumb to follow is that 5% of the daily value is a small amount of a nutrient, and 15% is a large amount. For some nutrients, like fibre and calcium, we want a higher quantity in our packaged items, whereas we are looking for a lower number when it comes to trans-fats. Comparison-shopping allows us to choose the healthier option, even though it still might not be the ideal choice.
What about nutrition claims? Nutrition claims are regulated statements that provide some insight into what nutrients are provided in a product. Nutrition claims are optional for food companies to display, but are regularly used more as a marketing ploy to attract consumers than to help consumers choose healthier options. Nutrition claims include “low fat,” “sodium-free,” “source of fibre,” and “gluten-free.” We must be critical when we read these statements. A corn tortilla package might read “gluten-free” but we have to remember that corn never contained gluten in the first place! This is just a marketing technique to encourage people to choose the “healthy” food option based on trending diets, even though gluten-free is not necessarily the healthier choice.
Understanding nutrition labels has become a necessity in the 21st century. We have to understand that food companies use the cheapest raw ingredients possible to make products that are still attractive and tasty to the consumer. This means that tons of sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives are added to foods that normally wouldn’t require such ingredients. As I continue to reinforce, you’re better off reading the ingredient list in packaged items. As a rule of thumb, limit the amount of ingredients that you can’t pronounce – they’re likely foods that can’t be found in any household pantry around the world and therefore shouldn’t be regularly consumed. We have to stop being passive consumers and start making informed choices about our health and our food system.