Sugar. Saturated fat. Sodium. These are the three bad guys of public health — meaning your health.
They’re found in abundance in many processed foods — those shelf-stable products that come in boxes or crinkly packages. Canadians consume these foods daily and eating too much of them increases your risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack and even some cancers. You probably already know this, right? But it can be hard to track how much of the dangerous triad you’re getting.
Knowing how to read a nutrition label is a good start — and that’s about to get easier, according to William Yan, ’82 BSc,’83 BSc(Spec Cert), ’86 MSc, ’90 PhD. He is overseeing the nutrition label revamp as the director of the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences, Food Directorate at Health Canada. The organization has developed new nutrition labels and ingredient lists and Yan says food manufacturers will have to use the new labels by 2021. Some of them will start using the new labels sooner.
“The chronic disease burden is a huge drain on the overall health-care system,” Yan says. Instead of waiting until people get these diseases, he says, “it makes a lot of sense to put efforts into helping Canadians eat healthier.”
Part of Health Canada’s clearer labelling effort includes front-of-package nutrition symbols, which are in the process of being finalized for publication. In the shopping aisle, the new symbols will alert you at a glance if a single serving of food contains more than 15 per cent of the daily recommended value of sugar, sodium and/or saturated fat. “Use that information to guide you as to whether you want to purchase that food,” says Yan, “also, how much or how often you want to eat it.” The best way to avoid excess sodium, saturated fat and sugar is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where the fresh food lies, and to prepare meals yourself. Of course, most of us buy processed foods at least sometimes and the new labels are designed to help us choose in a more deliberate way.
Here’s what you should know before you hit the grocery store:
1: Sodium. “Canadians consume way more sodium than they need for healthy body function,” Yan says. You need only 1,500 mg of sodium from all food sources over the course of a day. For perspective, one teaspoon of table salt has more than 2,300 mg of sodium. Too much contributes to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Look for the “% Daily Value” column in the nutrition facts table and choose foods with five per cent or less daily value of sodium in one serving. The new table will also have a “% Daily Value” footnote at the bottom to help you understand how much sodium and other nutrients are in your food. For example, five per cent is a little and 15 per cent is a lot.
2: Saturated fat. A small amount of this is fine, but overconsumption is linked to heart disease and stroke. When comparing products, choose the one with as little saturated fat as possible. Look for foods with five per cent or less daily value of saturated fat. Saturated fats are found in meat, lard, palm oil and butter. Insignificant amounts are found in canola, olive or sunflower oil.
3: Sugar. “Sugar doesn’t directly lead to a specific disease, but it does lead to empty calories,” Yan says. Empty calories factor in obesity, which is linked to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Health Canada says a well-rounded eating plan includes no more than 100 grams of total sugars per day (equaling about half a cup). To put this in perspective, a can of cola has 35 grams of sugar with no appreciable nutritional value. Yan recommends that you get most of your sugars from fruit, vegetables and unsweetened dairy products such as plain milk or yogurt. Check the sugar content and avoid anything with 15 per cent or more daily value of sugar per serving.
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