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It’s made of WHAT? Figuring out Canadian nutrition labels

Health Canada has done a great job educating people on how to read nutrition labels, especially if you have access to the internet. Unfortunately, seniors are often the people who require this knowledge the most, and yet are less likely to be surfing the net.

There are three mandatory components to the nutrition labels on all packaged food in Canada—the ingredients list, nutrition facts panel and nutrition claims. Understanding how to critically assess these three components gives you a different perspective on food products, depending on what your “nutritional goals” may be. Here’s what to look for.

Ingredients list

The list of ingredients has been a mandatory labelling requirement for packaged foods for many years. It is a source of information for people who need to avoid certain ingredients because of allergies, sensitivities, interactions with medications and other health reasons. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, with those present in the greatest amounts listed first. In the example below, wheat flour (which, by the way, is white flour!) and glucose/fructose (which is sugar), make up the majority of this product.

Ingredients: Wheat flour, glucose/fructose, vegetable oil, shortening (vegetable, modified palm, modified palm kernel) dextrose, flax seeds, safflower oil, citric acid, calcium lactate, sorbitol, potassium sorbate, wheat starch, malt, sodium bicarbonate, HFCS, soya lecithin, vanillin, natural flavour.

Be a sugar sleuth

You’ll be hard pressed these days to find packaged products that don’t contain sugar. The recommendation to monitor our added sugar intake should not only be directed to people with diabetes but to all of us, since many foods contain sources of sugar. A case in point is the average commercial small mixed-fruit yogurt, which  can contain up to six teaspoons of added sugar—the limit for most children up to the age of 8 years!

Many sugars end in the suffix “ose” (e.g., glucose, fructose) but added sugars have many other names, including invert sugar, ethyl maltol, Demerara, dextrin, malt, rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sorghum, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, date sugar, honey, corn sweeteners, turbinado, raw sugar, treacle, maltodextrin and molasses. These will all spike your blood sugar, contribute to dental caries and provide little more than empty calories, just like table sugar.

The total sugar content can be hard to work out as several of the above ingredients can be listed together. But if you add up all the different sugars by weight, they will often become first or second on the ingredients list.

Shake the salt

As for sugar, there are several different names for salt. As a general rule of thumb, any ingredient with the word “sodium” within it (e.g., monosodium glutamate) is a salt. The recommendation for salt intake for seniors is approximately 1,500 mg daily (¾ tsp).

Nutrition claims

A nutrition claim is a statement on a food label that promotes a specific nutritional or health benefit of consuming that product. Examples include “source of omega-3 fatty acids” or “cholesterol free.” These claims are optional and manufacturers have to pay an additional fee to have a claim added to their product labels. This too often causes smaller manufacturers of potentially healthier products to lose market share because of an inability to pay a premium for this “advertising.” Although manufacturers must prove to Health Canada that their product meets the standards required to boast a nutrition claim, consumers should not rely solely on them when comparing products.

Nutrition facts

The nutrition facts panel provides consumers with the most pertinent information they need about a food in order to make sound decisions in the grocery store. By law, the nutrition facts panel of all pre-packaged foods must include the serving size, number of calories and information on 13 core nutrients (fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron).

The problem with the nutrition facts panel is that most people don’t understand how to interpret the information on it. Here’s a step-by-step guide to making sense of the panel

Step 1: Compare apples to apples

When comparing similar products, your first step should be to analyze the serving sizes. Keep in mind that manufacturers systematically monitor their competitors’ marketing efforts and often want to stay one step ahead by making their product appear healthier.

Say, for example, you are comparing the sodium content in two different brands of baked beans. Brand A may state on the panel that it contains 600 mg per serving, while brand B may state 650 mg. However, Brand A’s serving size is 3 oz while Brand B’s is 4 oz, making Brand A a better choice if your concern is sodium.

Serving size is often indicated by a phrase such as “one bar” or “per slice” or “two cookies,” followed by the metric measure. Ensure that when you compare, you not only compare the phrase, but also that the metric measure is equivalent. Have you ever excitedly read a label that boasts a low number of calories per cookie, only to find when you open the box that the cookies are the size of an ant? When comparing cookies for calories, brand A may state “per 4 cookies (30 g)” as its serving size with 150 calories per serving, while brand B states “per 2 cookies (30g)” with 130 calories per serving. Concentrating only on the number of cookies without considering the gram weight would result in most people buying brand A because they get more cookies for just a few more calories. In fact brand B is the best choice if you want to limit your calories because the serving sizes of both brands are the same gram weight (30 g).

Step 2: 13 core nutrients

Assess food products based on whether they meet your specific needs in terms of the 13 core nutrients. Many seniors would like to increase their fibre intake while reducing fat, saturated fat and sodium. Seniors with diabetes may be more concerned about counting carbohydrates than anything else in order to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Those struggling with maintaining iron in their blood may focus on choosing products with a higher iron content. Whatever your specific requirement, you can easily compare a product’s nutrient content using the nutrition facts panel.

Step 3: % daily value

The final step involves analyzing % daily value (%DV). This value is the least understood by the public, yet provides us with valuable information at a glance. %DV is used to establish whether a food has a lot or a little of a nutrient and is best used to compare food products. It is based on recommendations for a healthy diet for the general population.

As a rule of thumb, if a nutrient has a %DV of more than 15%, it is considered a HIGH source of the nutrient per serving. Conversely, if it has a %DV of less than 15%, it is considered a LOW source of the nutrient. For example, the iron daily requirement for adults is 14 mg. If one serving of a product contains 1.5 mg of iron, its %DV will be listed as 11% (1.5 mg / 14 mg ´ 100). This product would therefore be considered a low source of iron.

Take your time

Reading nutrition labels takes time and practice. Expect to spend a bit more time in the grocery store to evaluate labels and compare products. It’s well worth it in the long run, as you will see that improved nutrition directly translates into better health!

Get additional information on label reading and participate in Health Canada’s “Interactive Nutrition Label Quiz”. Test your knowledge!

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About Andrea Olynyk, RD, MAN

Andrea Olynyk is a registered dietitian and a Professor of Nutrition and Gerontology at the University of Guelph/Humber College. She also works clinically in long-term care and is frequently called upon to speak and write about current nutrition trends. She holds a masters degree in applied nutrition from the University of Guelph and has focused her career on promoting healthy nutrition practices in seniors.

Caregiver Solutions magazine is Canada's family guide to Home Health Care and Wellness

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