June 12, 2015 9:30 am
Updated: June 12, 2015 9:36 am

Making informed food decisions: How to read nutrition labels

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WATCH ABOVE: Nutrition labels aren’t easy to read when you’re grocery shopping. Carmen Chai walks viewers through what they need to pay attention to. Animation by Deepak Sharma.

You’re looking at a nutrition label trying to make sense of all of the grams, millilitres and percentages. How do you make an informed decision while wading through the numbers and health claims?

Nutrition labels are meant to help, but more often than not, consumers are left stranded trying to interpret serving sizes and daily values. Keep in mind, the labels are only part of a bigger picture – Canadians should aim for a balanced meal with fresh ingredients, according to Amanda Nash, a Heart and Stroke Foundation registered dietitian who’s in charge of community nutrition and health promotion in Manitoba.

“It’s helpful to understand what you’re putting in your body and if they’re healthy good choices or not, but we want to note that focusing on the overall food and meal quality is the best approach,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: Making informed food decisions – Understanding ingredient lists

“You can’t zero in on one perfect food because there’s no one food that’ll give you all the nutrients your body needs,” she explained.

The current Nutrition Facts label was ushered into the marketplace in 2002 and was fully implemented in 2007, according to Alfred Aziz, chief of nutrition regulations and standards at Health Canada. It’s considered the gold standard internationally and is currently mandated so that all prepackaged food comes with the labelling.

Still, it’s getting a major revision based on feedback from consumers, Aziz told Global News.

READ MORE: What Health Canada’s ‘easier to read’ nutrition labels would look like

Nash walked Global News through the food label to help consumers understand what they should be paying attention to.

Serving size

This portion of the food label is critical. It tells you how much of the nutrients below are in a portion of what you’re eating. Serving sizes are determined by the food producer though, so it’s your job to determine how much you’ll be eating in a sitting or how many servings are in the entire product.

“You want to make sure that if you’re eating more or less, you’re adjusting the nutrients below to reflect that,” Nash said.

READ MORE: Change confusing nutrition labels to help consumers, FDA says

Nash said only 30 per cent of consumers look at the serving size.

Serving sizes are also handy when comparison shopping. You have to make sure you’re comparing equivalent servings, though. If one cereal box’s nutrition label suggests half of a cup is a serving, it’s going to look healthier next to its counterpart whose serving calls for a full cup, for example.

“Hopefully in the future, serving sizes will be a common amount for the average consumer. It’ll be streamlined,” Nash said.

13 core nutrients

Calories

This number tells you the amount of energy found in a food, according to its serving size. The average 30-year-old man should aim for about 2,500 calories while the average woman should aim for 1,800 calories, Canada’s Food Guide suggests. Make sure that’s broken up into three meals and a handful of snacks per day.

READ MORE: Measuring meals by exercise, not calories helps consumers eat healthy, study suggests

Both experts caution that calorie content should be taken with a grain of salt. Tree nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and walnuts, have an incredibly high calorie count, but they’re packed with nutrients like protein and fibre. Your job is to make sure you’re balancing calories with nutrients.

“Don’t get too hung up on calorie amounts, otherwise you’ll miss out on key nutrients,” Nash said.

Fat

These are nutrients you want to limit. Fat is broken down into saturated and trans fat – saturated fat is what your body uses to make cholesterol, which builds up in your arteries. Trans fat is made when a liquid vegetable oil is changed into solid fat. It’s usually added to processed goods (think of cookies, cakes and frozen dinners) to make them tastier and helps keep the food stay fresh longer.

READ MORE: 6 misconceptions about nutrition and healthy eating

The Heart and Stroke Foundation said Canadians should limit trans fats to about five per cent of your daily fat intake. About 20 to 30 per cent of calories should come from fat. For a woman, that’s about 45 to 75 grams, or 60 to 105 for a man, per day.

Keep in mind, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fats are dubbed the “good” fats – they’re found in olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, nuts and fish like salmon and trout.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is made by the body but what we’re eating helps its production along, so too much of it in your diet doesn’t bode well. The American Heart Association said consumers should aim for less than 300 milligrams per day, but if you’re living with heart disease or are taking cholesterol-lowering medication, you should aim for 200 mg daily.

Sodium

Keep an eye on how much of this nutrient you’re consuming, too. We need sodium in our diets, but only in certain amounts. Too much can lead to health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Most Canadians eat about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day – that’s more than double the amount we need. Healthy adults should aim for about 1,500 milligrams.

To put it in perspective, 1,500 mg is a little more than half of a teaspoon of salt.

READ MORE: Hold that salt! Top 5 foods packed with sodium

Carbohydrates (fibre and sugar)

You often think of bread, pasta and rice as carbohydrates – carbs fuel your body with energy faster than protein or fat. They include starches, fibre and sugar. But not all carbohydrates are equal: your best bet is to aim for complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, whole wheat pasta and bread, brown rice, vegetables and beans. Simple carbohydrates, found in processed food, juice and other snacks, are empty calories – they don’t bring much nutrition to the table.

Sources of dietary fibre include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, peas, and beans. Fibre helps with staving off heart disease risk.

READ MORE: Why you should eat beans, lentils and peas to lower bad cholesterol

Sugar is a tricky one – right now, both natural and added sugars are grouped together on the nutrition label but that’s slated to change as Health Canada ushers in tweaks. For now, it’s your job to look at the ingredients list to decipher what sugars are in your food – “added sugars” are often listed as sucrose, fructose, corn syrup and cane juice.

Protein

Your body relies on protein to build and repair muscles, blood and organs. It’s measured in grams and most health officials call for about 46 g of protein for women and 56 g of protein daily for the average man. But watch where your protein comes from, too. It’s often animal sources, but poultry, fish and lean cuts of red meat are healthier for you. Beans and soy are also great sources of protein.

Your vitamins and minerals

Vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron round out the current nutrition label.

“There was a concern we weren’t getting enough of these vitamins but now the average Canadian does,” Nash said.

Vitamin D and potassium are slated to be introduced onto the nutrition label. For now, this bottom half of the nutrition label is what consumers need to make sure they’re getting enough of. For the most part, it’s easily within reach if you’re eating a balanced diet.

READ MORE: The 41 most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables

Decoding nutrition claims

Food labels are often slapped with a handful of buzzwords, such as low fat, source of fibre and light. They may sway your decision in choosing one product over another, but there’s a breakdown of what these phrases actually mean.

Nutrition claims are optional – food manufacturers don’t have to include them but if they choose to do so, they have to meet government criteria to snag the qualification.

Reduced: This means the product has at least 25 per cent less calories, fat or sodium compared to the original product. A savvy consumer has to first determine how much fat or how many calories was in the original product – if it was already fat-laden compared to similar products, removing 25 per cent may not make it much better.

Cholesterol-free: To gain a cholesterol-free label, the product has to have less than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving. It also has to be low in saturated and trans fat.

Sodium-free: Similar to cholesterol-free, sodium-free means the product has less than five milligrams per serving. In the grand scheme, Nash said that’s pretty low.

Source of fibre: This means the food you’re eating has at least two grams of fibre per serving. A “high” source of fibre has at least four grams and a “very high” source has at least six grams.

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(Graphic designed by Jillian Catton, Global News)

Sources: Health Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Health Link BC, Food and Drug Administration, American Heart Association.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2015 Shaw Media

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