Understanding Food Labels

Labels are critical to help you keep track of your things. The same is true of the food labels that appear on every package in North America. And there are certain standards that must be followed by law.

There are also private systems that have been designed which may contribute to “nutrition confusion”.  The Health Check System in Canada, which is a Heart and Stroke Foundation system, comes to mind as one that hasn’t lived up to rigorous enough standards.

In the US, there is the Hannaford Guiding Stars System which is now implemented in Loblaws stores in Canada. These are “quick peek” and one, two, three star systems that identify the healthier products on store shelves.  Each product is given an algorithmic rating by a third-party panel of experts. Points are weighted according to the presence of positive attributes (like protein and fibre) and the absence of negative (white sugar, flour, salt, fat...). It’s a great quick glance to help you pick up the best in class.

Once you get your products home, take the time to actually read the label and focus on:

  • The ingredient list.  The first three items should be real, whole foods and the list should be as short as possible and completely recognizable.
  • The serving size.  Be sure you know the serving size is not the recommended amount that you should eat but that it is a reference number upon which everything else rests.
  • % of Daily Value. The number chosen is for a 2000 calorie per day diet which represents an average.  And you are not average.  So much can affect how many calories are right for you.  Be sure that you know how many calories are right for you because your number could be higher or lower.
  • Slippery Sodium. Health Canada estimates that 88% of our salt intake comes from packaged foods so simply putting away the salt shaker isn’t the best solution. Packages contain a “% Daily Value” amount that is too high, so it obscures the facts.  Most health care professionals recommend around 1500 mg per day as a maximum.  Nutrition labels allow 2400 mg per day (because the Canadian average is around 3300). Be sure that this is a percentage that you stay well below. There are ways to reduce your sodium , but in the meantime, read every package, add up your sources for a day and do not go above 75% of the “% DV”.
  • There are only 13 “important nutrients” that must be listed on a label. But of course, a healthy diet contains much, much more.  If a piece of fruit listed all of its nutrients, the label would wrap around it many times over.

Most of your nutrients will actually be coming from whole foods...Be sure that this is also where most of your calories come from and you will be right on track.

About the Author

Theresa Albert

Theresa Albert is a Food Communications Specialist and Toronto Personal Nutritionist. She is @theresaalbert on twitter and found daily at www.myfriendinfood.com

Picture of Theresa Albert

Author: Theresa Albert

Theresa Albert is an on-camera food and health expert, nutritionist and writer who loves to spread the word on food. She is a Food Communications Specialist and Toronto Personal Nutritionist. Tweet with her at @theresaalbert & find her daily at www.theresaalbert.com

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