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Interpreting and Understanding Nutrition Facts Labels

One of my favourite hobbies will forever be grocery shopping and wandering, while reading nutrition facts labels (I can’t wait till this day is allowed again!) It is important to know, not only what is in the food you are eating, but how to interpret and understand a food label. Reading nutrition labels and grocery shopping isn’t something that should be stressful – but something that can be enjoyable and fun! Foods labels help you to make informed decisions about the foods you are buying and eating.

This post is a guide highlighting how to properly interpret and read a nutrition facts label and a couple of important items to look for when doing so – after all, there are as many as 61 different names for sugar!!!

This post is a little lengthy so here are some highlights: 

  1. Serving Size: All of the information on a nutrition facts table is based on the serving size. It’s important to compare the serving size to both the amount you are actually eating and the number of servings for the whole package. 
  2. Calories: A calorie is a unit of energy, based on estimates. The calorie content listed on a nutrition facts table will inform you of the total amount of calories in a serving size, not necessarily just a single serving size (not that calories are super important, but it is good to know!)
  3. Macronutrients: Carbohydrates are sub-grouped into: sugars, starches, dietary fibre, and sugar alcohols – consider “net carbs”. Not all fats are created equal. Sub-categories include – saturated fats, unsaturated fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Aim to choose unsaturated fats more often. There are 20 different types of amino acids, which can be combined in numerous forms to make varying proteins. There are 9 essential amino acids, these amino acids are considered essential as they cannot be made by the body, thus must be consumed through food sources.  
  4. Micronutrients: As a general guideline, choose foods that are high in calcium, iron, fibre, and Vitamin C & A and foods that are lower in saturated & trans fats, cholesterol and sodium more often. 
  5. Percent Daily Value (% DV): The percent daily value (% DV) is used to determine whether a food item is low or high in a certain nutrient. A %DV of  5% or less is considered a little bit, while 15% or more is considered a lot, remember that this percentage is based on the serving size.
  6. Ingredient List: Ingredients on food packaging are listed in descending order by the ingredient that is most predominant in the food product – meaning the heaviest ingredient is listed first and the lightest ingredient listed last. 
  7. Nutrient Content and Health Claims: Nutrient content and health claims are optional on food packaging/labels. A nutrient content claims informs buyers of the amount of a specific nutrient contained within a specific food product. Whereas health claims are the statements found on food products that address the certain effects or benefits when consuming specific foods within a healthy diet, and the effect that this has on an individuals health.

For starters, the information on a food packaging and nutrition label includes: (1) a nutrition facts table, (2) an ingredient list, and sometimes, (3) nutrition and health claims are found on food packaging, but this is not essential. In Canada, a nutrition facts label must contain: the serving size, the amount of calories, % daily value and 12 core ingredients (fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron) – including cholesterol on a nutrition facts label is optional.

Not all foods are required to have a nutrition facts label, these foods include: fresh fruits and vegetables, raw meat, seafood and poultry, alcohol, foods prepared or made at the store (such as baked goods and salads), and foods that contain few nutrients (spices, coffee, tea).

 Below are 7 important items to look out for when reading a nutrition food label, and how to interpret them properly.

  1. Serving Size
  2. Calories
  3. Macronutrients
  4. Micronutrients
  5. Percent Daily Value (% DV)
  6. Ingredient List
  7. Nutrient Content and Health Claims

1: Serving Size – All of the information on a nutrition facts table is based on the serving size. It’s important to compare the serving size to both the amount you are actually eating and the number of servings for the whole package – this puts things into perspective. Note that the serving size does not necessarily mean that this the quantity of food you should be eating.

2: Calories – A calorie is a unit of energy, based on estimates. The calorie content listed on a nutrition facts table will inform you of the total amount of calories in a serving size and not necessarily a single serving size (not that calories are super important, but it is good to know!) How many calories are in one serving size and how much are you eating relative to the given serving size? With this in mind, you are able to calculate how many calories are in the quantity of food you are eating.

3. Macronutrients – It is helpful to look at the macronutrient content of a food product: (1) fat content, (2) carbohydrate content, and (3) protein content to know exactly how much of each is contained in the product. On a nutrition facts table, within each of these macronutrient categories there are sub categories – ie. the different types of fats – trans fats, saturated fats, ect. Below are a few points to consider when looking at the macronutrient content of various food sources:

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the most challenging but often the most interesting area to interpret and understand on a nutrition facts table. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel and are converted into glucose (sugar) during digestion. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram. Carbs are sub-grouped into sugars, starches, fibre, and sugar alcohols, and are referred to as “simple” or “complex” carbohydrates based on their chemical structure. When reading a nutrition facts table, the total amount of carbohydrates refers to the sum of sugar, starches, and dietary fibre. Below is a quick explanation of the various sub- categories of carbohydrates. 

Sugars are the smallest form of carbohydrate. Sugars include monosaccharides (single sugars) or disaccharides (two sugar molecules combined). Sugars are found both naturally such as in fruits and vegetables but are also added to foods for the purposes of taste, texture, and preservation. 

Starches are a type of carbohydrate that consist of many glucose (sugar) molecules linked together to form long chains. Starches are found naturally in peas and beans, various vegetables, and grains but can also be added to foods to thicken or stabilize them during preparation or processing.   

Dietary Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that is composed of numerous glucose molecules that are linked together – unlike sugar and starches, given the structure of fibre and how the glucose molecules are bound together, dietary fibre cannot be readily digested. There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Some nutritional facts tables provide a distinction between the two types of fibre, but this is not mandatory. Fibre is found in a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, and whole grains. Dietary fibre works to promote a healthy gastrointestinal tract (especially important for those with inflammatory bowl disease!!!), helps to control blood sugar levels, works to lower cholesterol levels and leaves you feeling satisfied for longer. 

Sugar Alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that have the chemical characteristics of both sugars and alcohols. Sugar alcohols are found in very small amounts naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but are most often commercially made from sugars and starch. Sugar alcohols are marketed to consumers as a sugar-free or reduced- calorie sweetener and are found in various foods.  Since sugar alcohols have fewer calories than table sugar (sucrose), they are often used as a replacement. Sugar alcohols do not count towards the total sugar count on food labels. Common sugar alcohols include: sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, inulin, and mannitol (xylitol is highly toxic to dogs). Sugar alcohols are known to cause stomach upset and gastrointestinal discomfit in those with sensitive stomachs – especially with those who have IBS, IBD, or digestive issues. Be mindful of this when consuming foods that contain a high sugar alcohol content. Similar to dietary fibre, sugar alcohols are partially resistant to digestion, thus they do not have as large as an effect on blood glucose levels in comparison to “real sugar”. 

Often “net carbs” is a tern used when reading the carbohydrate section of a nutrition facts label. Since dietary fibre is indigestible and it has very little impact on ones blood glucose levels, it is subtracted from the total carb count – the remaining is a products net carbs. To determine the amount of net carbs a food item contains, subract the fibre content from the total carb content. 

Fat

Fat is necessary for hormone regulation, to assist in absorbing vitamins A, D, E, and K and various minerals, is essential for building cell membranes, lining and protecting cells, and needed for the production of essential fatty acids. Fat contains 9 calories per gram. Fats are classified as either saturated or unsaturated. 

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are mainly found in animal food sources, such as milk, meat, and cheese, but are also found in various oils such as coconut and palm oil. A diet rich is saturated fat has potential to increase ones cholesterol levels, thus if an individual consumes too much over a long period of time, their risk of acquiring cardiovascular disease is heightened.

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and consist of mainly oils from plants. Eating unsaturated fats more often helps to improve ones cholesterol levels. 

Monounsaturated fats help to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol levels and  maintain healthy levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. HDL works to help clear cholesterol from the blood stream, reducing ones risk of acquiring heart disease by working to support insulin sensitivity and energy levels. Whereas LDL cholesterol can build in the walls of arteries forming plaques, negatively impacting your health long term and increasing your risk of acquiring heart disease. In order for an individual to reap the benefits of monounsaturated fats, they must also lower their saturated fat and trans fat intake. Some food sources of monounsaturated fat include: olives, olive oils, avocaods, nuts and nut butters. 

Polyunsaturated fats include omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Consuming polyunsaturated fats are beneficial as it helps to lower LDL cholesterol levels, and are of benefit in reducing inflammation and supporting optimal hormone levels, again, reducing ones risk of acquiring heart disease. Some food sources of polyunsaturated fats include: oily fish, soybean, nuts, and seeds. 

Trans fats are considered the worst type of fat to consume. Trans fat decrease one’s levels of HDL, while raising LDL cholesterol levels, thus consuming a large amount of trans fats has been linked to an increased risk of acquiring cardiovascular disease. Most trans fats are formed by a process called hydrogenation, this helps to solidify the fat at room temperature and increases its shelf life. Trans fats are very cheap to produce, hence why they are found in a variety of different foods – particularily processed and fast foods, baked goods and shortening.  

Aim to choose unsaturated fats more often! 

Protein

Protein is made up of small organic molecules called amino acids, that attach together forming a long chain. Protein is essential for the growth, maintainence and repair of bones, skin, blood, muscles and cartilage. There are 20 different types of amino acids, which can be combined in numerous forms to make varying proteins. There are 9 essential amino acids, these amino acids are considered essential as they cannot be made by the body, thus must be consumed through food sources. A complete protein is a food source of protein, that contains all 9 essential amino acids, for example, quinoa. Similar to carbohydrates, protein contains 4 calories per gram. Some examples of sources of proteins found on food labels include: actin, collagen, fibronectin, and elastin.

4. Micronutrients – Quickly looking over the micronutrient content of foods is also of benefit. Looking at the various micronutrient content is beneficial if you are seeking out products that are high or low in a specific micronutrient. As a general guideline, choose foods that are high in calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamin C & A and foods that are lower in saturated & trans fats, cholesterol and sodium more often.

5. Percent Daily Value (% DV) – The percent daily value (% DV) is used to determine whether a food item is low or high in a certain nutrient. The %DV is based on the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for minerals and vitamins, and reference standards. A %DV of  5% or less is considered a little bit, while 15% or more is considered a lot, remember that this percentage is based on the serving size. The %DV is beneficial as a guide if you are deciding between two different products and want the product with a higher or lower content of a specific nutrient, for example a product that has a high content of iron. Note that the % DV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet for a healthy adult, per day, however you may eat more or less than this.

Below is a chart of various Nutrients and their Daily Values, provided by the Government of Canada:

Canada, H. (2020). Percent daily value – Canada.ca. Retrieved 5 June 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/percent-daily-value.html

The % DV for a nutrient is calculated by: dividing the amount of a nutrient in a serving size by its daily value, then multiplying that number by 100.

For example, knowing that the daily value for fibre is 25 g, if a certain granola bar contains 6 g of fibre, this means that the %DV for fibre would be 24%. (6 g ÷ 25 g) × 100 = 24% DV

6. Ingredient List – An ingredient list is the list of all the ingredients contained in a food product, and is found at the bottom of a nutrition facts table. Ingredients on food packaging are listed in descending order by the ingredient that is most predominant in the food product – meaning the heaviest ingredient is listed first and the lightest ingredient listed last.

Often nutrients are listed on ingredients list under many different names, ingredients to be mindful of include: trans and saturated fats, sugar, sodium, and additives and/ or preservatives. Sometimes reading the various ingredients listed and actually knowing what they are is difficult as ingredients such as sugar have numerous names: sucrose, HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), crystalline fructose, barley malt, maltose,  crystalline fructose, dextrose, coconut sugar, fruit juice, rice syrup, to name a few! After taking the time to read ingredient lists, you will become much more familiar with the ingredients used in food products.

A note on additives and preservatives:

Preservatives and additives are added to food for numerous reasons, and occur both naturally and synthetically. Preservatives are commonly added to foods to kill or slow the growth of harmful bacteria, extend the food products shelf life, to act as a gelling agent, an emulsifier, or a thickening agent, to amplify a products taste, or to enhance the colour. Often preservatives and additives are listed at the end of the ingredient list as they are often found in very small amounts. A few examples of additives/ preservatives include: citric acid which is used to prevent the browning of fruit, tocopherols and ascorbic acid which look like frightening ingredients but are simply the chemical names for Vitamin C and E and work to prevent microbial growth, lactic acid which is often added to fruit drinks and is the by product of corn or cane sugar, and sorbic acid which prevents your red wine from growing fungi and bacteria (which is very important ;)). Although numerous people are fearful of preservatives and additives, thinking they are necessary to avoid, in reality, if we did this, we would miss out on a lot of tasty foods! If preservatives and additives are present in foods, they must be included in safe amounts. If you are abiding by a balanced diet, the amount of preservatives and additives you are ingesting will not be of concern as overall your diet will consist of various fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If consumed in small amounts, preservatives and additives pose no risk to your health. Like most things in excess, if you are ingesting an excess amount of processed foods, you are more likely to be ingesting a large amount of preservatives and additives and this has potential to be harmful to your health. The only preservatives and additives to be mindful of are nitrates and nitrites, which are often used as preservatives in processed meats. Excess consumption of nitrates and nitrites have been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Choosing foods in which you know all of the ingredients contained in the food product is often challenging and not necessary, but with time, can become easier.

7. Nutrient Content and Health Claims – Finally, nutrient content and health claims are beneficial to make note of. Nutrient content and health claims are optional on food packaging/labels. Both nutrient content claims and health claims on food products are regulated by the Government of Canada. A nutrient content claims informs buyers of the amount of a specific nutrient contained within a specific food product. For example: “source of”, “high in”, “excellent source of”, “___ free”, “low in”, “___ reduced”. Whereas health claims are the statements found on food products that address the certain effects or benefits when consuming specific foods within a healthy diet, and the effect that this has on an individuals health. For example, “Adequate calcium and vitamin D as part of a healthful diet, along with physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life.” Nutrient content and health claims are beneficial when comparing different products, when you are looking for a product that is high or low in a specific nutrient or when you want to know why it is beneficial to consume a certain nutrient.

A complete list of the meanings of content claims in Canada can be found at the following link: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/nutrient-content-claims-what-they-mean.html.

Additionally, for products to be considered in various categories – “organic” for example, it is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and must follow a set of specific guidelines to ensure that the product is not misleading to buyers.

In Summary….

Food is fuel!!! It’s handy to understand how to read a food label and nutrition facts table to determine the amount of energy your food contains and the various nutrients that you are fuelling your body with. Although this is the case, it is important to always keep it mind that you should aim to abide by a diet of moderation, balance and sustainability! #ALLFOODSFIT

Happy label reading! 😉 Have a great weekend!

Anna x

References:

Ellis, E. (2019). The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label. Retrieved 3 June 2020, from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label

Health Canada. (2019). Understanding food labels – Canada.ca. Retrieved 3 June 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels.html

Health Canada. (2012). Nutrient content claims: what they mean – Canada.ca. Retrieved 5 June 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/nutrient-content-claims-what-they-mean.html

Kimber, K. (2019). Additives and Preservatives – Are they really that bad? | Online Dietitian, Helping You Eat Happy. Retrieved 6 June 2020, from https://nudenutritionrd.com/additives-and-preservatives/

Understanding Food Labels in Canada – Unlock Food. (2019). Retrieved 6 June 2020, from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Nutrition-Labelling/Understanding-Food-Labels-in-Canada.aspx

Weisenbeger, J. (2020). Macronutrients | Learn About Carbohydrates, Proteins & Fats. Retrieved 1 June 2020, from https://www.innerbody.com/nutrition/macronutrients

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