Nutrition

Learn how to decode a nutrition facts label

Author: Canadian Living

Nutrition

Learn how to decode a nutrition facts label

Do you know what you're eating? It may look like a simple slice of bread or helping of canned peas, but although the food itself seems harmless, the product's nutrition facts label may reveal a different story.

"We need to be more aware of what we’re putting in our bodies," says Anna Leiper, a clinical dietitian with the Nutrition Education Clinic of Capital Health in Halifax, N.S. "Especially now that we see the connection between our food intake and cancer, our food intake and specific diseases." These diseases include, among others, hypertension from too much salt and high cholesterol – which can lead to heart disease and stroke – from too much fat.

To help consumers understand what they're eating, the government of Canada introduced nutrition facts labelling in 2003 and made it mandatory on all prepackaged foods in December 2007. Knowing how to read and interpret the label can get you back on track for healthier eating and a healthier lifestyle. Here's how:

Understand the label's components

The standard label criteria states that calorie count and 13 core nutrients must always appear in the same order to make the nutrition facts easy to identify and use. Those nutrients include fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Some companies further break down the facts – specifying the types of unsaturated fats or adding more vitamins and minerals – to promote their product’s healthy contents.

Read the whole label
Just because something is fat-free, it doesn't mean it's good for you, says Leiper. "If you're only looking at one component, you may make an inappropriate decision. Some snacks may not be fat-free, but they have fibre and a lower sodium content that make it more balanced than something that is fat-free without any nutritional value."
 
Know your serving size

"Serving size on the nutrition facts has nothing to do with a healthy serving size," says Leiper. "It just means that if you eat that serving size listed, then you're getting everything listed in the label below."

To find recommended healthy serving sizes, visit Canada's Food Guide. And when comparing similar products, always check the serving size first: When Leiper went to buy a candy bar, she noticed one had 13g of fat, the other 17g. She opted for the lower-fat bar, then realized the serving size for the 13g was for a third of a bar and the 17g was for the whole thing. "Sometimes companies will choose a serving size that makes the nutrition facts look a bit more balanced," she explains.

Page 1 of 2Follow the per cent daily value
If you aren't aware of a nutrient’s recommended serving size look at the percentages column.

"The percentages are such an easy way for the common consumer to have guidelines without knowing all the information that dietitians do," says Leiper.

Say you have two slices of pizza for a total of 18 grams of fat. The percentage is 28. That means you are consuming nearly a third of the total fat recommended for a day.

"You'll need to be very careful to eat lower fat options for your other meals or, if your going to eat your normal meals during the day, you need to bump up your exercise a little more to balance out the extra fat taken in," Leiper explains. 

Avoid trans fats
If a food has less than 0.5g of trans fat, the company can put zero on the label. For proof-positive, check the ingredients. If the word hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated is used, there are traces of the nasty nutrient, which has been linked to heart disease, adult-onset diabetes and Alzheimer's. Trans fats from natural sources (animal and dairy products) are okay. 

Look at the order of ingredients

Ingredients are listed in proportional order. If sugar is the first ingredient listed, it should raise a red flag. If it's a product that only has two ingredients and sugar is second, it may only be a minute amount.

Become a healthy eater

To become a better eater, Leiper advises:
• noting serving size first, and if you double the serving size, double what the label says.
• checking the calories – a healthy snack should be 100 to 200 calories.
• avoiding trans fat
• sticking to less than 2300 mg of sodium, the recommended daily  amount; Health Canada suggests less than 1500 mg to help decrease the risk of hypertension.
• monitoring fibre. Aim for 25 to 35 g, about 8 g per meal and 3 to 5 g in snacks. Too much fibre at one time can cause abdominal distress.

Final word: have fun!
"Eating healthy doesn't have to be hard," insists Leiper. "Read the labels. Once you know what that label says, you can categorize it in your brain as an 'eat this thing any time I want', 'eat this thing every now and then,' 'eat this for special occasions.' “You just have to be intentional and mindful of your choices."

Read more:
Ready to lose weight? Here are six questions to ask yourself
Quiz: What's your snacking style?
5 health foods that are new to you

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Learn how to decode a nutrition facts label

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