Food Labels

Shopping in the supermarket can leave you standing in an aisle, staring at the products, and wondering "what product is the best for my health?"

The explosion in pre-packaged foods may make cooking and eating easier, but it can make shopping more stressful and time-consuming.

Since September is back-to-school time, it's a good time to brush up on "supermarket literacy," so you know how to read food labels and decide what products are the healthiest options.

Canada announced new mandatory food labeling regulations in January 2003. Even though large manufacturers have up to three years to comply, new labels are already starting to appear on grocery store shelves. Smaller manufacturers will have up to five years to comply with the new labeling regulations. These new regulations make Canada's labels the most detailed in the world. Canada is also the first country to make trans fat labeling mandatory and to split up the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Canadian consumers will be able to make more informed choices.

The nutrition facts table shows the calories, fat (including the different fats like saturated, polyunsaturated, trans fat, cholesterol, etc.), fiber, sugars, carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron, sodium, and vitamins A and C. These are the nutrients that health professionals and researchers have considered to be important to health. When picking foods, try to choose products with more fibre, vitamins, and calcium and iron, and less fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Too much saturated fat and sugar can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

To make things more complicated, products provide nutritional information based on a "serving size." So when you're comparing products, do some quick math in your head to ensure the serving size in one product is comparable to the serving size in another product.

Calories tell you how much energy you get from one serving of a packaged food, so it's important to closely examine the number of calories in any food. The 'per cent daily value' compares the number of calories with the amount recommended in a balanced 2000 calorie diet.

Manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in the product, and they're listed in order, from the biggest ingredient to the smallest. Keep in mind that ingredient lists can be deceiving.

  • Fats can be listed as fat, lard, shortening, oils (palm, coconut, vegetable), monoglycerides, diglycerides, or tallow.
  • Sugars can be listed as sugar, honey, molasses, anything that ends in "ose" (dextrose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose), dextrin, or syrups.
  • Salts can be listed as salt, MSG, sodium, baking soda, baking powder, brine, kelp, or soy sauce.

Manufacturers may also make claims about their product. There are two types of nutrition claims: nutrient content claims and health claims. Nutrient content claims tell you about one ingredient such as sodium, fat, or sugar. Health claims tell you how your diet can affect your health. Even if a product contains nutrition claims, it may not be a good choice for your dietary needs. You have to assess the overall value by looking at the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. For example, a "fat-free" product may still be high in calories and inappropriate if weight loss is your goal. Many manufacturers may add different sweeteners to create the moisture the fat would have given the regular product.

Other nutrition claims must adhere to strict guidelines and definitions. Low in fat means there is 3 g or fat per serving, calorie-reduced means that the product has been reduced by 50% in calories compared to the original product, and sugar free means that there is less than 0.25 g of sugar per 100 g and no more than 1 calorie per 100 g. Lite or light means that some component of the product has been reduced by 25 - 50%, but make sure you read the label carefully, as the term light can also refer to flavour, taste, or texture. Light olive oil is not light in calories or fat. It is light in taste.

September means time for 'supermarket literacy.' Arm yourself with knowledge and start walking through the aisles with ease!