To add sweetness:
What is it? A natural sweetener extracted from the Mexican agave plant. Agave syrup is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar. According to Doug Cook, a Toronto-based registered dietitian: "Agave is 90 per cent fructose and 10 per cent glucose. It is the darling sweetener of vegans and of those pursuing a raw food diet."
Where you'll find it: Bottled, as a substitute for maple syrup or honey, and added to some health food store versions of salad dressings, ketchup and sauces.
Nutritional benefits: Since agave is sweeter than sugar, you need less of it to get a sweet taste, which may help cut down on calories.
Good to know: Cook says that the fructose in agave is the same simple sugar that's found in high fructose corn syrup. "If agave is used as a primary sweetener, you could get too much fructose, which may have an impact on triglycerides [a type of fat found in the blood] in some people."
What is it? A naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is extracted from sources such as birch trees, corn cobs and oat hulls. Xylitol is as sweet as sugar but has fewer calories.
Where you'll find it: Added to chewing gum, mints and toothpaste.
Nutritional benefits: Studies confirm that xylitol is antibacterial and can help prevent tooth decay and cavities. Xylitol is only partly absorbed by the body, so it has a low impact on blood sugar levels and is suitable for people with diabetes.
Good to know: Too much xylitol may have a laxative effect. It's difficult to know precisely how much you can tolerate as there is a wide variation in sensitivity between individuals, but experts say it's best to not exceed 10 grams per day.
Page 1 of 3 – Learn about the ingredients that add fibre to your food on page 2.
To add fibre: Inulin
What is it? A type of naturally occurring soluble fibre found in wheat, garlic and chicory, among other sources. Extracted from chicory, inulin powder is added to packaged foods to increase fibre content without changing taste or texture.
Where you'll find it: Added to Kellogg's Fibre Plus granola bars, Country Harvest +Plus bread and many other foods.
Nutritional benefits: Inulin is a prebiotic fibre, meaning it helps stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in the gut. It also helps boost calcium absorption. However, unlike the soluble fibre found in apples and beans, inulin does not help lower cholesterol levels.
Good to know: Too much inulin may cause bloating, gas and diarrhea. A serving of inulin-enriched food will usually contain one to three grams; most people can tolerate up to 10 grams per day.
Oat hull fibre
What is it? A source of insoluble fibre that comes from the outermost layer of the oat grain. Traditionally, oat hulls were discarded during processing, but the need for fibre sources for human consumption has resulted in the production of oat hull fibre for food use.
Where you'll find it: Added to President's Choice Blue Menu Medaglioni With Ricotta, Dare Grainsfirst Whole Grain Snack Crackers and other foods containing added fibre.
Nutritional benefits: Because the body is unable to break down oat hull fibre, it passes through the system undigested. This helps bulk up stool content and prevent constipation. Studies show that, unlike oats, the hulls do not help reduce cholesterol levels.
Good to know: Because oat hull fibre is not digested, it provides no calories.
To enhance heart health: Algal oil
What is it? A vegetarian source of the heart-healthy omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), algal oil is extracted from seaweed and algae. "It is of great benefit to those who don't eat fish due to allergies or vegetarian diets, but who still want a good source of DHA in their diet," says Cook.
Where you'll find it: Cool Ones yogurt, So Good Omega DHA Fortified Soy Beverage, Dempster's Smart 100% Whole Grain Bread, infant formula and many other products.
Nutritional benefits: DHA may help prevent heart disease by lowering blood-pressure levels. "DHA is also important for pregnant women, infants and children since it supports brain and eye development," says Cook.
Good to know: Unlike the omega-3 fats derived from some species of fish, the DHA from algal oil is free of mercury and other oceanborne pollutants.
Page 2 of 3 – Discover the benefits of plant sterols and salba, plus learn more about functional foods on page 3.
What are they? Natural plant chemicals found in small amounts in fruit, vegetables, nuts and oils. The average Canadian consumes about 0.3 grams of plant sterols per day. However, sterols can be isolated from plants and added to food products in doses of one to two grams per serving.
Where you'll find them: Added to foods such as margarine (such as Becel Pro.Activ) and yogurt (such as Astro BioBest Plant Sterols) and other products.
Nutritional benefits: Having two grams of plant sterols per day can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) levels by 10 per cent and help lower the risk of heart disease.
Good to know: Since the 1950s, more than 180 studies have confirmed the cholesterol-lowering benefits of plant sterols. In Canada, sterols were approved for use as a food ingredient in May 2010.
What is it? An edible seed that's high in antioxidants, fibre and the omega-3 fat alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
Where you'll find it: Added to Salba Life Cranberry Nut Bars, Salba Smart Tortilla Chips and other products.
Nutritional benefits: "Ingestion of escalating doses of salba reduces sugar in the blood after a meal and suppresses appetite in healthy individuals," says Dr. Vladimir Vuksan, a professor in the departments of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. In a second study, Vuksan's team found that "consumption of 37 grams a day of salba over 12 weeks improved blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors in subjects with wellcontrolled type 2 diabetes."
Good to know: Unlike flaxseeds, salba seeds don't need to be ground to release the beneficial ALA.
Note: If you have existing health concerns, be sure to speak to your doctor before using any amount of these new ingredients.
Savvy grocery shoppers are increasingly interested in foods that have enhanced health benefits and disease-preventing ingredients. These are called "functional foods" and they serve a role in the human body beyond offering calories and basic nutrients. Functional food classifications include the following.
Basic foods: These include naturally healthy foods that are particularly high in certain nutrients. For instance, salmon is rich in the omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and carrots contain lots of the antioxidant beta carotene.
Enhanced foods: Farmers can manipulate certain crops or change animal feed to yield more nutritious foods. Examples include selectively breeding oats that have higher levels of fibre, and feeding flaxseeds to hens so they'll produce eggs rich in omega-3.
Fortified foods: Some food manufacturers take everyday foods and make them healthier by topping up vitamin, mineral, antioxidant or other nutrient content. This includes practices such as adding calcium to orange juice, plant sterols to margarine and inulin to bread.