Look Closer: Deciphering Nutrition Labels

May 2015 - Health & Wellness

When scrutinizing nutrition labels on food packaging, most people are primarily concerned with sourcing how much fat and calories are in a box of crackers or a can of soup. And while it is important to have a grasp on the caloric impact and the amount of fat consumed, there is much more information hiding in your favourite product’s nutrition label.

The first thing to consider when reading a nutritional label is serving size. Without the serving size the nutritional values don’t hold much meaning. Depending on the product, the serving size could be the entire item, 100 mL, or a cup. The size of the serving will have a big impact on how much of that particular item you should consume; 100 calories and 5 grams of fat looks like it is a healthy option, but the question is, how big of a serving size does that represent? If it is for an entire energy bar it may be reasonable, but not as much so for only a quarter of a bottled beverage.

A point to consider when examining the number of calories is the amount of nutrients that are involved in that same serving size. For example, some foods may be higher in calories, but they may also be very nutrient-dense, which offsets the caloric value. On the flip side, many foods are very high in calories but are lacking in most all nutrients. The key is to find foods that are high in nutrients but do not come with substantially higher calories.

The vast majority of nutritional labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Foods with 40 or fewer calories are considered low calorie items, those with approximately 100 calories are considered moderate items, and those with 400 calories or more are considered high calorie items. The goal is to garner the greatest nutritional value from foods that are within the low and moderate calorie range.

Also found on nutritional labels are the item’s concentration of cholesterol, sodium, fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Along with the measure, there is a percentage listed next to each of these items. This percentage is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), provided by Health Canada as a guide to how much of these nutrients a person following a 2,000 calorie diet should consume on a daily basis. In the case of fat, cholesterol, and sodium, the RDA sets out a limit that should not be exceeded. In the case of the other nutrients, like fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron, the RDA is the minimum standard that each person should be obtaining per day.

When looking at the fat content, keep in mind the difference between saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. All nutrition labels will separate trans fats and saturated fats out from the total fat content. This is because saturated and trans fats are responsible for a variety of health conditions and should be eaten in moderation. Saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium can all increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure. In contrast, vitamin A, vitamin C, fibre, calcium, and iron are helpful nutrients that can reduce the risk of many diseases and contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

Nutritional labels also provide information about how much protein and carbohydrates are in a product. One rule of thumb for calculating protein needs is 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Most people easily meet their protein requirements per day, excluding vegetarians or vegans who may need to be more observant to ensure they are getting their recommended amount. Carbohydrates are broken down into both fibres and sugars so be sure to consider each category. The average adult should be eating between 21 and 35 grams of fibre daily, but the majority of people do not get that much. When looking at labels, try to find items that have at least 3 grams of fibre per serving. Some more informative labels will include a number for both soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre helps to lower cholesterol, while insoluble fibre aids in healthy digestion. It is wise to be aware of the amount of sugar in a product, as hidden sugars are not uncommon in prepared food items. Sugars are present in a surprising number of products, including items that are typically savoury. Low-fat products are notorious for containing large amounts of sugar, which is added to make up for the flavour lost when the fat is removed. Women should be consuming no more than 24 grams of sugar per day, men no more than 36 grams, and children no more than 12 grams per day.

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