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How Food Label Savvy Are You?

Understand the "Nutrition Facts" box

Understand the "Nutrition Facts" box

Have you ever tried to decide between two brands of canned soup at the market? A quick side-by-side judgment can be made thanks to the "Nutrition Facts" table. Health Canada requires food companies to mark their packaged food products with a consistent and truthful label detailing certain nutrient info. The "Nutrition Facts" table is required to include information on 14 items: calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

Here's a rundown of the necessary elements:

Ingredients: The ingredients that go into making your packaged or prepared foods will usually be listed somewhere near but outside of the "Nutrition Facts" table. The ingredients are listed in order from most weight to least weight. So the item at the top of the list is the ingredient present in the highest amount by weight. You'd check here to see if a food contains any known allergens.

Indicated serving: You'll spot this at the top of the "Nutrition Facts" table. This factoid tells you the portion of that particular food item that was used to determine the information found in the table, and the indicated serving can vary among manufacturers. All of the nutritional stats to follow in the table will depend on this indicated serving. So, if you gulp down all 500 mL of orange juice in a bottle, but the label states a serving size "per 250 mL," you'd have to double the nutritional values to figure out how many calories you've downed or what percentage of a vitamin you've consumed. While liquids are usually expressed in mL, cookies or slices of bread are often noted by number.

Percent of daily value (%DV): The percentages noted beside each nutrient tell you how much of that nutrient the food provides per the serving size indicated at the top of the table. These calculations are based on average recommendations for a healthy diet and can be used to do a head-to-head comparison between two similarly-sized servings of specific foods. As a rule of thumb, 5% DV or lower is a little while 15% DV or higher in one serving is a lot. Nutrients you may want more of include calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamins A and C. Nutrients you may want less of include fat, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.

Nutrient contents: Now you get to the nutritional nitty-gritty! Most of a "Nutrition Facts" label will be devoted to the amount and percentage of the most important core nutrients:

  • Calories: Foods give your body energy to do the things it needs to do. Calories are a measurement of that energy. Your body only needs a certain number of calories per day - somewhere between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day, depending on your gender, age, and how physically active you are. When you exceed your daily calorie needs, extra calories will be stored away. Some is stored as fat, some as carbohydrates in your muscles.
    Label-able tip: You'd check the calorie count on a food label to see how much of your daily tally will be met by eating a serving of that food. Remember to check the indicated serving specified at the top of the table and adjust accordingly.

  • Fat: Our bodies need fat for growth and energy, but it should make up no more than one-third of our daily total calories, even less for people with high cholesterol or other cardiovascular risk factors. Excess fat gets stored in the belly and beneath the skin, and sometimes finds its way into our blood vessels and organs. When considering which fats to consume, strive to eat more of the good kinds of fats and less of the bad types (limit saturated and trans fats to less than 10% of total daily calories).
    Label-able tip: Look at the fat data on the label. You'll probably only see the "bad" fats noted - saturated and trans fats. Add those two together, and whatever you're left with is the total of "good" fats - the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids among them). Any product that has a %DV of 5% total fat or lower (10% or lower in trans and saturated fats) can be considered "low" in fat.

  • Cholesterol: Our bodies create all of the cholesterol it needs to make the membranes of cells in our body, keep hormones in balance, to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and to produce vitamin D. Too much extra cholesterol from foods we eat can become dangerous. The foods that raise your blood cholesterol are usually the foods high in saturated and trans fats. High cholesterol increases heart attack and stroke risks. Dietary cholesterol does not necessarily affect your blood cholesterol level - this depends on the person. Foods low in saturated and trans fats are also low in dietary cholesterol. Doctors do advise to limit dietary cholesterol intake to somewhere between 200 mg to 300 mg per day, especially if you are at risk of heart disease.
    Label-able tip: Know your daily cholesterol limit because, while you'll always see the total cholesterol in milligrams in a food label, labelling the percentage of the daily value is not mandatory. Of those that are labelled, anything below 5% is considered "low" in cholesterol.

  • Sodium: Excess levels of sodium in the diet can boost blood pressure to unsafe levels in some people. Aim to eat less than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) of sodium per day, though people in particular risk groups may need to slash sodium to levels as low as 1,500 mg daily.
    Label-able tip: When you see "sodium" on a food label, most of the time it indicates salt (i.e., sodium chloride, or table salt) content. Sodium can lurk inside of other ingredients, too, and turns up in high quantities in many soups and prepared foods. A food that contains 5% or less of the daily value of sodium would be considered "low" in the mineral.

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. Simple carbohydrates found in sugar, fruits, and dairy products release quickly into the body. Complex carbohydrates - starches and fibre found in potatoes, grains, and root vegetables - take longer to break down and provide a slower-burning energy source. About half of your daily calories should come from a carbohydrate source, but any extra will be stored as fat.
    Label-able tip: The carb section of the food label will usually be divided into total grams of sugars and of fibre. Add those totals together and whatever is left in total carbohydrate count will be starches. Look for higher tallies of fibre and lower of sugars. A food with high fibre will contain 15% or more of the heart-healthy, digestive-supporting nutrient.

  • Protein: Adults require about 60 g of protein per day, about 10% to 15% of total daily calorie intake, to maintain healthy cells and tissues. Growing children need slightly more. Any protein you eat beyond your body's daily needs will be broken down and stored as fat.
    Label-able tip: Check the label to see how many grams of protein are found in the indicated serving of foods and drinks. You'll notice that there's no %DV noted next to protein. That's because most Canadians who eat a relatively mixed diet will consume an adequate amount of protein without much trouble.

  • Vitamins: Health Canada mandates that food labels include information on a few vitamins and minerals - vitamins A and C, and the minerals calcium and iron. Other nutrients may be noted, especially if a food contains high quantities of a nutrient, a healthy asset that food companies would definitely want to highlight.
    Label-able tip: Vitamin tallies will be described by percentages of the daily recommended intake value, not by a measurement like milligrams. That's because the notation of vitamin totals can get complicated and confusing. Also, the numbers can mislead. On the one hand, one cup of mustard greens contains 10  mg of calcium, which sounds like a lot, but only meets 10% of the daily value. On the other hand, one cup of spinach contains only 6 mg of iron, which meets 36% of the daily value for that mineral.

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Understand the "Nutrition Facts" box

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