Making sense of food labels

Author: Canadian Living


Making sense of food labels

Every parent wants to feed their little one high-quality foods loaded with vitamins, minerals, proteins and essential fats. Unfortunately, choosing healthy foods and interpreting wordy food labels often feels overwhelming, with hard-to-interpret health claims and ingredient lists. In order to ensure you are selecting healthy foods for your household, check out the list below, which indicates the "bad stuff" that you want to keep out of your grocery cart.

Trans fats
Trans fats are found in a variety of food items such as vegetable shortening, margarines, crackers, cereals, cookies and snack foods. This type of fat is formed when manufacturers change a liquid oil into a solid via a process called hydrogenation. These newly created chemical fats are appealing to food manufacturers because they reduce costs and increase the shelf life of a product. Unfortunately, these types of fat also increase the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

As of January 2006, new government regulations require food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats found in a food on the nutrition facts label. This label will show a trans fat line directly below the saturated fat line on the Nutrition Facts panel on all products with a measurable level of trans fats (at least 0.5 grams per serving). Consumers should also look for the words partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening on the ingredients list. These words are also indicative of trans fats.
(Discover 101 ways to cut fat from your diet!)

There are many different ways a food label can indicate the presence of sugar. In terms of health, it is the "added sugars" found in most processed and packaged food and beverages that need to be greatly reduced in the diet. Added sugars can contribute to obesity, dental decay, type II diabetes and immune system suppression.

When looking at the nutrition facts label, check the ingredient list for words that refer to sugar, such as brown sugar, confectioner's sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, levulose, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, sorghum, starch, sucrose or sugar alcohols (mannitol, sorbitol, malitol, xylitol). Ingredients are also listed in order from most to least. If sugar appears as the first or second food item, then the food in question is filled to the brim with it!
(Avoid sugar cravings with 5 power eating tips.)

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Label terms to know
In addition to sugar and trans fats, it is important for consumers to become familiar with various claims on packaging in order to know the meaning behind the food they are buying. The most common claims and their meanings per serving are:

• Fat free = 0.5 grams of fat or less
• Calorie free = 5 calories or less
• Sugar free = 0.5 grams of sugar or less
• Sodium free = 5 mg of sodium or less
• Cholesterol free = 2 mg of cholesterol or less
• Low fat = 3 grams of fat or less
• Low in saturated fat = 1 gram of saturated fat or less
• Low cholesterol = 20 mg of cholesterol or less
• Low sodium = 140 mg of sodium or less
• Very low sodium = 35 mg of sodium or less
• Low calorie = 40 calories or less
• Reduced calorie = At least 25 per cent less energy (calories) than a comparable product
• High = 20 per cent or more of daily value
• Good = 10 to 19 per cent of daily value
• Good source of fibre = 4 grams or more of fibre

In addition to becoming an informed label reader, loading up your grocery cart with less processed and packaged goods and more fresh, whole, live foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean meats is another powerful step toward health and wellness.


Dr. Joey Shulman is author of Winning the Food Fight and national bestseller The Natural Makeover Diet. For more information visit


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Making sense of food labels