I try to be smart about the foods I bring home for my family. I make it a point to look at the Nutrition Facts Table on every package and scan the number of calories, carbohydrates and fat grams per serving. And though I feel confident that the numbers fall within my “healthy” parameters, I have to admit that I do skip over the rest of the breakdowns. Maybe if I learned how to evaluate all the nutrients listed, I might be able to make even better choices.
Why read the label?
Health Canada made nutrition labeling mandatory in December of 2007. All packaged goods are required to provide a breakdown of calories, 13 core nutrients and the percent of the daily value of the product. In other words, it tells you how much a serving fills your daily nutritional requirements. Most of us have certain dietary needs and limitations. If you have a heart condition for example, you know that you should consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium a day. Familiarizing yourself with your personal minimum and maximum limits of common nutrients will help you to read and understand the Nutrition Facts Table more effectively.
Working from the top down, the serving size for a food is listed first on a Nutrition Facts Table and serves as a reference point for all the calories, nutrients and fats listed for a suggested portion size. You’re by no means limited to eating what the serving size suggests, it merely serves as a guide for you to multiply or divide according to how much you want to consume. However, when it comes to eating snack foods, like chips or crackers, it might help to measure out the suggested serving size into a bowl instead of eating straight out of the box so you don’t overindulge!
% Daily Value
I’ve always wondered what the number and percent symbol meant beside a nutrient listed on a Nutrition Facts Table. It’s simply there for you to evaluate if there’s too much or too little of a particular nutrient in the food you want to eat. A 5% daily value is considered a small amount, a 15% daily value is a lot. Let’s say you’re looking at two boxes of crackers and you’re trying to decide which one has less saturated fats. If one contains a 3% daily value, it means one serving contains three percent of the saturated fat a person should consume in a day. If the other box contains 9%, you know that in order to keep your saturated fat consumption low, you’d choose the 3% option.
The amount of calories in a particular serving of food is something that’s always on our minds when we evaluate if a food is worth eating or not. Calories are the amount of energy in a serving amount of particular food. Calorie content comes in handy if you’re counting them or comparing similar foods to see which one has more or less. To find out what your approximate daily calorie intake should be consult the Health Canada’s Estimated Energy Requirement Chart. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/basics-base/1_1_1-eng.php
You have to know your good fats from bad in order to evaluate the numbers shown on the Table. The fat (unsaturated) per serving is further broken down to also show saturated fats and trans fats. Keeping your consumption to two to three tablespoons or 30 to 45 ml of unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega-s) like avocado, nuts and seeds, fatty fish and vegetable oils per day is ideal.
Saturated and trans fats are the kinds that tend to raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Included in the list are animal fats, coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, dairy products like butter, whole milk and cheese and lard and shortening. Health Canada recommends keeping these types of fats to about 20 grams a day based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. Your total fat intake for a day should be under 65 grams.
Trying to keep track of what’s “good” and “bad” cholesterol is hard enough, never mind knowing how much total cholesterol you need a day. In general, your daily consumption should be no more than 300 milligrams to help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Some food manufacturers like to use the claim “cholesterol-free” to make their products look like better options. In order to qualify, the food must be under 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
Sticking to just over half a teaspoon of sodium (sodium chloride or table salt) a day seems almost impossible in our salt-crazy society. A 1,500 milligram minimum (2,300 milligram maximum) is what Health Canada recommends per day to keep blood pressure down. In ordered to be considered “sodium-free”, a food must contain less than five milligrams per serving. Beware of other ingredients in foods like monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is just another type of salt that can actually boost the total sodium content of the food you’re eating.
In addition to calories, total amount of carbohydrates are what we’re likely to keep our eye on when we’re choosing foods. Sugar, starch and fibre are the core nutrients that fall under the carbohydrate umbrella. Sugar is considered a simple carbohydrate which releases quickly into the body. Fibre and starches are complex carbohydrates and fuel your body longer. Starch is not always listed on the label but can be calculated by adding sugar plus fibre and subtracting the amount from the total carbohydrate number listed on the panel. Try to keep your daily carb count to around 300 grams a day.
The way fibre is worded on the box corresponds to how many grams are in a particular serving. A “source of fibre” contains at least two grams. A “high source” has around four and a “very high” sources has at least six grams. Consuming at least 25 grams of fibre a day is ideal.
Refined sugars and natural sugars like fructose are grouped together in the same category. Looking at the ingredients list makes it easy to tell which types of sugar a product has more of. To stay on the healthy side, choose foods that have higher fruit or lactose ingredients. Amazingly there is no recommended daily optimum levels for sugars though Health Canada is suggesting 100 grams is plenty.
Adults usually have no problem achieving their daily protein intake so Health Canada doesn’t list a suggested % daily value. But if you’re counting, about 55 grams a day is enough or 0.5 to 0.7 grams per pound of body weight.
Vitamins A and C and minerals iron and calcium are included on all Nutrition Facts Tables. Only the % daily value is given since quantities recommended in milligrams can be misleading. Companies are free to add other nutrients on the panel too, especially if they are particularly high in quantity and want to feature them as selling points.
Every company wants you to choose their product over the others they share shelf space with. Claims using the words “healthy”, “good for you”, “doctor recommended” and so on are words created by advertising and package design companies, not by Health Canada. Researching the amounts of nutrients that are ideal for you and your family is the only way to determine if you deem a product healthy, not the manufacturer.