Understanding Ingredient Labels & Nutritional Information
Sometimes I annoy myself with how much time I spend at the grocery store. Still, there’s few things I enjoy more than a relaxing day (without kids obvo) where I can stroll around and read and compare labels. Seriously, I find it fascinating. You can start to fully appreciate the power of marketing. I love to compare so-called “healthy foods” to regular brands. Oftentimes you find that the products are very similar or that even that the food in the health store isn’t necessarily better for you at all. And what’s more obnoxious is that you often have to pay a lot more for that “healthy” brand.
Here’s a few tips for reading ingredient labels:
- Look for as few ingredients as possible. The more items listed, the greater the chance the food is processed.
- Ingredients are listed by quantity. So the first ingredient listed will have the most weight in the product and that last item will have the least. Try to make sure you’re choosing food with more of the nutritious stuff (think whole foods).
- Avoid products that are full of words you don’t recognize. There’s a good chance you don’t recognize these words because they are not whole or nutritious items. Try to pick foods with ingredients that you have at home.
- Avoid Trans Fats. In September 2018 the Canadian government banned the addition of trans fats to food products. Trans fats lower your good cholesterol (HDL) and increase your bad cholesterol (LDL) as well as harden your arteries. Some items may claim to be “trans fat free” but still contain hydrogenated oils. Look for “partially hydrogenated" or “hydrogenated oils” on the ingredients list. If they are in the product, see if you can find another option.
- Limit products that list Sodium in the first five ingredients. Some sodium is good for us, but too much can have negative health effects like increasing blood pressure. Look for words on the ingredient list like, salt, garlic salt, monosodium, disodium or glutamate (MSG). Soy can also be very high in sodium.
- Limit products that list Sugar in the first five ingredients. Sugar can appear in labels as glucose, fructose, dextrose and sucrose. Corn syrup, honey and molasses are also used to sweeten foods.
- Limit artificial sweeteners. These can be listed as Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin and Acesulfame.
- Limit sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate is typically found in processed meats like bacon and lunch meats. According to the Mayo Clinic, this preservative can increase your risk of heart disease. It can also affect the way your body uses sugar, increasing the risk of diabetes.
- Limit artificial colourings. The studies on the dangers of artificial colours are for the most part inconclusive. But we do know that these additives offer no nutritional benefits and are often found in cereals, sweets and sodas that are marketed towards children.
And here’s some help with breaking down the nutritional information:
- Start by determining what the portion size is. There are quick converters available on-line to help you change units of measurements to something you can relate to. For example, if the nutritional information for a servicing of popcorn is 50 grams, you might want to convert that to cups to better understand how much you might want to consume.
- Determine how many calories are in the product in relation to the portion size. We know that men consume about 2300-3000 calories a day and for women the intakes range from about 1500-2100 calories. Ask yourself questions like, will this portion of this food product be adequate based on the number of calories I should be eating in a meal? Is this balanced? Are these calories nutrient dense or am I going to feel hungry shortly after eating this?
- Check out the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats). Is there quite a bit more of one than the others? If so - that’s ok. But remember you should be trying to balance portions of all three macros at each meal. Especially if you have prescribed macros from a nutrition coach.
- Catch the carbs. Not all carbohydrates are created equally. If a portion of the product has a high amount of carbs, you might want to reference the sugar quantity or the ingredient list to see what the product is actually made of.
- Limit saturated fats. This area can be confusing. Some saturated fats are good for us in balance with other dietary fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). There is also emerging evidence that saturated fats might affect your health differently based on the source. For example fatty meats, butter and coconut all contain saturated fats. But the majority of saturated fats in the Canadian diet tend to come from ultra processed foods, which typically also contain added sugar and sodium. These are the saturated fats we want to avoid.
- Look at the sodium content. The Health Canada guideline says that we should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily. However, recently certain health agencies have been recommending that number be lowered to 1,500 mg of sodium a day - which is less than a teaspoon! But the focus has mostly been on encouraging people to reduce take-out and processed foods rather than skip the table salt. The American Heart Association says that a whopping 90% of our sodium intake comes from processed foods in the grocery store and restaurant food.
- Scope out the sugar. No more than 10% of your total calories per day should come from added sugar and according to Heart and Stroke the ideal is less than 5%. That’s no more than 48 grams of sugar based on a 2000 calorie a day diet. Diets high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats are top risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease (Health Canada).
- Find the fibre. Many Canadians are not getting enough fibre and that’s too bad since it helps keep you regular, lower cholesterol and keep you fuller longer. The average woman should get at least 25 grams of fibre per day and the average man needs about 38 grams.