Nutrition

Nutrition facts: How to decode popular food terms

Author: Canadian Living

Nutrition

Nutrition facts: How to decode popular food terms

In the hunt for healthy groceries, it's smart to be cynical about the claims plastered across food packaging. Promising new and improved nutritional benefits and ever-healthier ingredients, there's no question that food label lingo is a powerful marketing tool. "The front of each food package is a valuable piece of real estate," says Bill Jeffery, national coordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. "Food companies use these claims to steer tens of billions of purchases made by Canadian grocery shoppers – mostly women – every year."

It doesn't help that so many of these claims are worded in a way that can be cryptic, vague or even downright misleading. How low, for instance, is "low fat"? Which is healthier: "low sodium" or "sodium reduced"? And what the heck does "lite" really mean?

But if you can decipher their meanings, these claims can actually help – not hinder – smart food choices. They do have some basis in fact, after all: Before making these claims, food manufacturers must meet the criteria set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. What's more, these claims can be used together with the Nutrition Facts table – a mandatory feature on every prepackaged food in Canada – to provide a clearer notion of the nutritional contents of your shopping cart.

The truth behind nutrition terms and labels
We asked a panel of Canadian nutrition experts to crack the most common food claims and weigh in on whether or not they're actually worth looking for. This list takes the mystery out of the marketing jargon and can help you track down the healthy foods that really have earned the hype.

Claim: "Calorie reduced," "Fewer calories," "Light" or "Lite"

What does it mean?
The food provides at least 25 per cent fewer calories (or fat, in the case of a "light" or "lite" product) per serving compared to a previous formulation.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, these foods may be smart choices if you're counting calories or eating for weight loss or maintenance. "Light" and "lite" can be deceiving, though, as they may also be used to refer to the product's colour or flavour (for example, "light tasting").


Page 1 of 6Find out what a "Cholesterol free" label really means on page 2.Claim: "Low fat," "Low in fat"

What does it mean?
The food contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, but be aware that manufacturers may add sugar to low-fat foods to improve the taste. Select low-fat options with the least amount of sugar.

Claim: "No trans fat," "No trans-fatty acids"

What does it mean?
The food contains fewer than 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes. Both saturated and trans fats are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. "However, trans fat is actually worse for our health than saturated fat," says Natalie Brown, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in White Rock, B.C. Note: Keep an eye out for the "0 g trans fat" claim. This particular wording hasn't been government approved, but it's already started popping up on grocery store shelves. If in doubt, read the Nutrition Facts table, which always includes saturated and trans fat content.

Claim: "High source of fibre," "High fibre"

What does it mean?
The food contains 4 grams of fibre or more per serving.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, says Brown. "The average Canadian should consume between 25 and 35 grams of fibre per day, and most of us aren't coming close to that."

Claim: "Cholesterol free," "No cholesterol"

What does it mean?
The food provides less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. The food must also contain 2 grams or less of saturated and trans fat combined, and provide 15 per cent or fewer calories from saturated and trans fat combined.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, this claim generally indicates a heart-healthy choice. Contrary to popular belief, the major contributors to blood cholesterol levels are saturated and trans fats, not dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol does play a role, though, so it's still important to limit intake. Note: As cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods, putting this claim on vegetable products is nothing more than a clever marketing ploy.


Page 2 of 6 – Discover how low-sodium food products can have an effect on your health on page 3. Claim: "Low in salt," "Low in sodium"

What does it mean?
The food contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes. A diet that's low in sodium may help reduce your risk for high blood pressure and slash your chances of developing heart and kidney disease. "The current recommendation is to limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day," says Brown. "That's the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt." Alarmingly, the average Canadian consumes over 3,000 milligrams daily.

Claim: "Reduced salt," "Reduced sodium"

What does it mean?
The food contains at least 25 per cent less salt per serving than a previous formulation.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, but it's still important to check the actual sodium content on the Nutrition Facts label. If the original product contained 800 milligrams of sodium per serving, the "reduced salt" version could still contain as much as 600 milligrams of salt. In this instance, the "low in salt" product would be the healthier choice (assuming serving sizes were the same).

Claim: "Source of..." (For example, "Source of magnesium")

What does it mean?
The food contains 5 per cent or more of the recommended daily intake of the nutrient named.

Is it worth looking for?
This claim can be useful if you're looking to boost your levels of a certain vitamin or mineral, but Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Toronto, says it's important to keep it in context. "Focusing on one specific attribute of the food does not tell you how healthy it is overall," she warns. The "source of calcium" claim, for example, has even shown up on packages of sugary cookies.

Claim: "Source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids," "Source of omega-3 polyunsaturates"

What does it mean?
The food contains 0.2 grams or more of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids per serving.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes. Omega-3 fatty acids boast a host of health benefits, but it's important to note that not all of these acids pack the same punch. Many omega-3-enriched foods are fortified with the plant-derived alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), rather than the heart-healthier, animal oil–derived docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).


Page 3 of 6 – Don't know the difference between "multigrain" and "whole grain?" Find out on page 4. Claim: "Made in Canada," "Made in Canada from imported ingredients," "Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients"

What does it mean?
The last transformation of the product (when it actually became a proper "pizza," "salad" or "sausage," for instance) occurred in Canada. This claim does not necessarily mean the ingredients are Canadian.

Is it worth looking for?
Depends on personal preference. However, purchasing products with the "Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients" label may help support Canadian industry and agriculture.

Claim: "Product of Canada"

What does it mean?
All major ingredients, processing and labour used to make the food product are Canadian.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes. Purchasing these products creates a supportive environment for Canadian farmers and companies. In recent years, stringent changes to the criteria for qualifying as a "Product of Canada" have made this claim relatively rare.

Claim: "Multigrain"

What does it mean?
The ingredient list includes more than one grain, which may or may not be refined. Seeds and legumes, which are not actually cereal grains, are sometimes included in the multigrain count.

Is it worth looking for?
"Multigrain" is a very loosely regulated term. Emily Burt, an Alberta-based dietitian with Food First Nutrition Consulting, suggests looking for the term "whole grain" instead. "This will ensure the food has all the nutritional benefits of the germ, bran and endosperm of the grain, including fibre, vitamin E and protein," she says. But as the "whole grains" claim isn't tightly regulated, either, Tarasuk suggests carefully checking the ingredient list and looking for the words "whole grain" before each cereal grain listed.

Claim: "Natural"

What does it mean?
The food or ingredients have not been changed in any way. Nothing has been added or removed, with the exception of water.

Is it worth looking for?
"Consumers tend to incorrectly assume that 'natural' is synonymous with 'healthful,' but that's not always the case," warns Jeffery. "Natural salt, dug from the ground or dried from seawater, can still raise blood pressure, for instance. And animal fat – although natural – can still raise bad cholesterol levels."


Page 4 of 6 Is a product without artificial flavours healthier? Find out on page 5.Claim: "Organic"

What does it mean?
A way of farming that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, growth regulators (substances used to modify the natural growth of a plant) and livestock feed additives such as antibiotics. Only products that have 95 per cent or higher organic content, as regulated by qualified certification bodies, can bear the organic claim.

Is it worth looking for?
Depends on personal preference. As with the "natural" claim above, "organic" doesn't necessarily mean "healthy." Studies have failed to show significant health benefits can be derived from the consumption of organic food.

Claim:
"No artificial flavours"

What does it mean?
"To use this claim, all flavours must be derived in whole from a natural plant or animal source," says Daina Rye, project manager at the Guelph Food Technology Centre in Guelph, Ont.

Is it worth looking for?
"This claim is growing in popularity," says Burt. Even candy manufacturers are qualifying by replacing the artificial flavour vanillin with actual vanilla. Again, natural does not necessarily mean healthy.

Claim: "No added sugar"

What does it mean?
No honey, fruit juice, sucrose or other type of sugar was added to the product or its ingredients.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, but a product with this claim isn't necessarily sugar free. Food made with fruit will contain naturally occurring sugars, for instance.

Claim: "Unsweetened"

What does it mean?
The food meets the "no added sugar" criteria (above) and neither does it contain artificial sweeteners.

Is it worth looking for?
Yes, if you prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners because of sensitivities or stomach discomfort.


Page 5 of 6 – Discover how to read a Nutrition Facts table accurately on page 6.Get the nutrition facts
Food claims are no substitute for the Nutrition Facts table, which should always be your first stop when sussing out the nutritional value of your groceries. You can use the table to help you pick foods with no trans fat or with less sodium, since both of these should be limited in a healthy diet. It can also help you compare the nutrient content of two similar foods.

Serving amount
All information listed on the Nutrition Facts table refers to a specific amount of food, as indicated in the serving size. All of the information in the table is based on that serving size. Remember: If you eat double that amount, you have to multiply everything by two!

Types of fat
Fat is broken down into types. Choose foods with as little saturated fat as possible. The amount of trans fat should be zero.

Food percentages
% Daily Value tells you if a food has a lot or little of each nutrient. Look for high percentages for vitamins, calcium, iron and fibre, but 10 per cent or less for fat, sodium and cholesterol.

This story was originally titled "Cracking the Code" in the October 2011 issue.

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Nutrition facts: How to decode popular food terms

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