It is very important to understand food labels and the nutrition tables found on packages. This information is key to understanding the ingredients, and nutrients in our food so we can help make informed decisions about the food we put into our bodies.
Image from: Government of Canada
Why is it important to be able to read food labels?
Food labels are important because they tell you the ingredients that are in your food. The ingredients are always listed in order from the food/ingredient with the most quantity in it to the one with the least amount in it.
It will also tell you what percentage of your daily requirement of nutrients are in the package, or what nutrients it lacks so you can provide yourself with a more rounded diet if you rely on packaged or processed foods. Many food items (and personal care products) “green wash” which means from the front of the package it looks healthy and natural, but in fact when you read the ingredients it states otherwise. A food can say “sweetened with honey” and you think it sounds good and a healthier snack or treat but in reality when you read the ingredients the first ingredient is sugar (which means the highest amount of any ingredient is sugar) and the last ingredient is honey (which is the lowest amount of any ingredient in the product). So for a product to claim something like that doesn’t necessarily mean it has no unhealthy ingredients in it, just that it has some of that ingredient in its package.
Food can also have “health claims” on the package, highlighting specific ailments such as “low in saturated fat”, or “heart healthy“ or “natural” The nutrition label will help you decipher if these claims are in fact true. These claims have to be accurate, but can be misleading or confusing at the same time.
I personally have a few rules I follow when I look at food labels:
1. First and foremost, I try and pick whole foods without a food label such as fruit, vegetables and organic lean cuts of meat and fish.
2. If I need to buy something packaged, my first rule is if I cannot tell you what the ingredient is exactly or cannot pronounce it I won’t consume it or give it to my family.
3. I avoid anything that says sugar, glucose, refined sugar as it isn’t needed in our bodies and causes more harm than good. I will however, use products that just contain honey, sweetened with fruit juice or fruit and maple syrup.
4. I look for certifications, and seals. Non GMO, Vegan (I am not vegan but this tells me there is no egg as my son has a sensitivity), Gluten Free, Organic a Dairy Free etc. To make sure it is third party tested and approved
And always remember even though it says organic, natural, or healthy it doesn’t mean it’s good for you! Always read the labels!
Nutrition Fact Table:
The following are items found on a traditional food fact table.
Serving size: Serving size is the recommended servings for this product. This is the amount of food that these nutrition facts are based on. So if the serving size is 1/2 a cup, you need to multiply the amounts on the food table by two to see how much you’re actually eating. This is probably one of the most important things to pay attention to, some products when compared side to side have “lower caloric content” but in reality they have a smaller portion size so just “seem” like they have lower calories because the portion size listed on the label is smaller.
% Daily value: This determines the daily value percentage of the nutrients you’re supposed to have in your day. DV% is the abbreviation for this calculation. For instance according to Health Canada your daily recommended value of calcium is 1100 mg. If your package has 20 mg of calcium on it, that would be 2 percent of your daily value.
Calories: Are a unit of energy, it refers to the amount of energy someone will get from the food and the drink they consume. The average woman needs 2000 calories per day, and the average man needs 2500 calories per day. Some people say a calorie is a calorie, but different foods will affect your body differently. As a nutritionist I have never focused too much on calories, just teaching my clients to eat whole nutrient dense foods. Depending on the source of calorie, the amount of macronutrients, type of sugar it produces in the body, the thermic effect, the content (protein vs. Carbohydrates), sugar content, effects on blood sugar, effects on satiety, etc. Will all affect what it does to your body.
Fat: This will tell you how much fat is in the product, and will break it down into saturated and unsaturated fats. Now, don’t be scared of fats we need fats in our bodies and to absorb certain nutrients. Some vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) are fat soluble and need fat to absorb and enter the body. There are a few fats that can be listed on a food label.
Saturated - Found in “hard” oils such as lard, coconut oil, and palm oil or in dairy and animal based products. These are good in moderation, your body needs these fats as well.
Trans Fat - We do not need this fat, too much can be harmful to your health. Can be found naturally in some animal based foods (dairy, beef and lamb) or are industrially produced through food processing.
Unsaturated Fat - two types, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These are good for your health, and some are essential to the healthy functioning of the body, Unsaturated fats are not required to be listed on the nutrition fact table.
Polyunsaturated Fat (Omega 3/6) - Healthy Fats - Most people do not get enough Omega 3’s in the diet. Found in nuts and seeds, fish, vegetable oils.
Monounsaturated - Found in avocados, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fiber found in fruit, grains, vegetables and milk products. Carbohydrates are the catch all term for the above. All carbohydrates are not created equal, and often have a bad reputation. Carbohydrates from an unhealthy source such as refined sugar should be avoided, but healthy carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains should be included in a healthy diet. This category is broken into two categories: fiber and sugars. Fiber should be included in a healthy diet, and is often a nutrient people do not get enough of, so you can eat this freely as it helps with a healthy digestive system. Sugars are found in fruits, fruit juices some vegetables, processed/refined foods and milk. This is one you need to watch for. Healthy sugars from whole fruit, and vegetables are needed in a healthy diet but refined sugars, juice etc although they taste amazing they aren’t needed in a healthy diet and should be avoided. When you start looking at labels you will be absolutely amazed at what contains added sugar. .
Protein: Protein is the building blocks of your body. They help in most processes in your body such as building and repairing body tissues, building muscle, and is used in certain hormone and enzymes as well. This is also a source of energy. Healthy sources of protein include lean organic meat, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a type of fat produced by your liver. Cholesterol can also be found in animal based products (meat, fish, butter, dairy, eggs). Cholesterol is not found in plant based products. You do need cholesterol in your body to help in certain bodily processes, but eating too much isn't a good thing as it floats around in your blood and can attach to the arterial walls creating narrowing. There are two types of cholesterol LDL and HDL, we can get more into that on a future post.
Sodium: Sodium is a mineral found in most of the foods we eat. It can also be known as sodium chloride or table salt. The average Canadian consumes way too much salt. Large contributors of our sodium intake are fried foods such as chips and French fries, baked goods, processed or cured meats, soups, sauces, condiments, appetizers, processed and refined foods as well as restaurant / take-out food.
The categories listed above are the traditional categories found on the label. The bottom half of the nutrition facts label vary according to the package/product it is on. It could include any vitamin or mineral. Here are some of the main examples.
Calcium:Calcium helps maintain and build strong bones and teeth, helps prevent the formation of osteoporosis and plays a part in muscle function.
Iron: Iron helps with the production of red blood cells' helps oxygen move throughout your body, and helps prevent anemia.
Potassium: It is an electrolyte and helps regulate fluid, send nerve signals and regulate muscle contractions in the body.
Thiamine: Thiamine is vitamin B1. It helps in glucose metabolism and used by your body to convert food into energy.
Folate: Folate is used by the body to make DNA, produce red blood cells and other genetic material.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral found in the body which is involved in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body. Every cell in your body contains it and it is needed for it to function.
Zinc: Your body doesn’t naturally produce zinc you will need to obtain it through diet and supplements. It is required in immune function, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, wound healing and growth and development.
I hope this helps explain how to read and understand a food label!
Johanne is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist in Tottenham. She developed a passion for nutrition after her battle with digestive issues as a child. After seeing what a difference food made in her life, she wanted to teach people to eat healthy and show them what a difference it can make in their lives also. She is located in Tottenham, but is also available for zoom or phone consultations. Johanne does one on one consultations, group classes, healthy living workshops, as well as corporate talks and workshops. If you have any questions, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her website at www.thewellnessequation.ca
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Written by: Johanne Douma, R.H.N.