Though it's always recommended to focus on a diet centered around whole foods first and foremost, it is inevitable that we consume foods with some sort packaging and label on it.
It's important to understand how to read these labels so you know what you are actually eating and putting into your body.
Unfortunately we can't rely on claims such as "organic", "natural", or "healthy" to choose a product, we must actually investigate the ingredients and nutrition content.
Many products and brands can be misleading which is why it is up to the consumer to take responsibility for their health by educating themselves on what is in their food and how to make healthy choices.
Different types of information will be found on food labels such as an ingredient list, nutrition facts, nutrition claims, food allergen labelling, and date.
Today we are arming you with the information you need so you can make the right choices for you and your family's health.
What to look out for
When looking at the ingredient list, it's important to note that the first listed ingredient is what makes up most of the product.
For example, if the first ingredient listed is sugar, it's probably wise to look for an alternative as you're likely about to eat spoonfuls of sugar!
It is common to think of a food as healthy but its ingredients may tell a different story.
This is often seen in products such as yogurt, granola, nut butters, and crackers.
Other ingredients to be on the look out for include artificial sweeteners and flavors, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, and allergenic foods. Look for products with small lists of ingredients and real whole food sources that you can recognize.
Sugar is hidden everywhere in processed and packaged products and can even be lurking in more savoury foods such as sauces, dressings, and breads.
The top sources of added sugar include sodas, pastries, bread, fruit juices, candy, tea, cereals, granola, yogurt, and condiments.
When looking at the label aim for 5g of sugar or less per serving, otherwise we recommend putting it back on the shelf, especially if it's the main ingredient listed you'll know it's too much.
You can tell if the product has sugar by several names:
- sugar (cane sugar, coconut sugar, white sugar, beet sugar, brown sugar...)
- words ending in "ose" (maltose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, sucrose...)
- syrups (maple syrup, rice syrup, agave syrup, corn syrup...)
Sugar can also be found in additional sources such as dates, honey, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, evaporated cane juice, and more.
Though natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables can be part of a healthy diet it's the added and excess sugars that we must be cautious about as they can contribute to high blood sugar levels and inflammation in the body.
Though sodium is an important mineral for health we only need it in small amounts, which only adds up to about 1 tsp of salt per day.
However, like sugar, sodium is added to many foods to increase palatability and found in items such as chips, breads, cereals, cured and canned meats, sauces, dressings, broths, soups, cheese, canned vegetables, TV dinners, roasted nuts and seeds, and most processed and packaged foods.
If you are eating a predominantly whole foods based diet you shouldn't have to worry about added salt here and there however if most of your meals are coming from packaged foods you may need to re-think your intake.
The daily recommended amount of sodium is 1,500 mg per day however most North Americans are getting upwards of 2,760 mg of salt every day (1).
When reading the label avoid products with over 300mg of sodium per serving and keep in mind that 20% of your daily value of sodium or more is considered a high amount.
Though controlling your sodium intact is part of the equation, obtaining enough potassium in your diet is equally as important in order to counteract the effects of sodium and reach an optimal ratio of potassium to sodium, which may be more strongly associated with blood pressure changes than individual sodium or potassium levels (2).
For many years the trend has been to fear fat however nowadays the importance of fat in the diet is becoming more mainstream. The thing is, not all fats are created equal. Harmful fats can create oxidative stress and promote inflammation in the body which can be quite harmful.
You'll want to avoid trans fats and and limit saturated fats as much as possible as high intake can be problematic so make sure you pay attention to the DV% written on the label.
Per day, the recommended amount of fat obtained through the diet is 65g (3).
If you see the words "hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oils, our suggestion is to place it back on the shelf and walk away. These are inflammatory and can contribute to health issues.
On another note be careful of "low-fat" or "fat-free" labels as products are typically loaded with sugar when the fat is removed.
Serving sizes can be very misleading if you're not attentive!
The serving size will usually be based per serving of the food but this isn't always the case. Just because a serving size is indicated doesn't mean it reflects how much you should eat at one time. This is a tricky misconception many people might miss.
Some products may reflect multiple servings or even the entire package.
Always verify how much the product's serving size is and pay attention to the daily values to determine whether it is a healthy food or not and how many calories and nutrients you are actually obtaining.
The daily value will indicate how much of a certain nutrient you are getting and how much it contributes to your total daily intake.
This can help you gauge your nutritional intake of the day and stay in the healthy ranges. The daily value is calculated in percentage by "dividing the amount of a nutrient in a serving size by its daily value and then multiplying that number by 100" (4).
Of course calories are important in order to maintain health as too many or too little calories consumed in a day can create problems. The calories are clearly indicated on the top left hand corner of the nutrition facts label.
If you are not sure of how many calories you should be consuming you can start here though your number will be affected by various factors such as age, gender, and activity levels.
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.