Using the nutrition facts table to make healthy food choices

A registered dietitian offers tips to interpret the information on packaged food.

A nutrition facts table appears, by law, on most packaged foods in Canada. It can help you make healthy food choices, but only if you can make sense of the information it includes.

Currently, Health Canada requires tables to provide details on serving size, calories and the percentage daily value (%DV) of 13 essential nutrients. As part of its healthy eating strategy to improve the food environment in Canada, Health Canada is making updates to the nutrition facts table, ingredients list and Canada's Food Guide. They are also consulting with the public on adding front-of-package labelling to food products.

Sabina Valentine, a registered dietitian with the School of Public Health's Centre for Health and Nutrition, says these updates will make healthy choices easier. But she says we should also be armed with some basic knowledge to be sure we're using the facts to our advantage.

Valentine offers some tips to interpret nutritional information on packaged foods.

Read the ingredients list first.

"Reading the ingredients list even before looking at the nutrition facts table can give you a bit more clarity about where nutrients are coming from," said Valentine. "Pay particular attention to grains, like wheat flour, or whole grain flour and sugars."

When it comes to grains, Valentine says to look for whole grain rather than refined grain ingredients because they offer more nutritional benefits, such as fiber.

"A whole grain food can be identified with a whole grain stamp. If a food does not contain the whole grain stamp, terms like 'enriched flour' or 'bran' or 'wheat germ' indicate that refined grains are in a food."

According to Valentine, naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruits, are not listed in the ingredients list, but added sugars are. "Ingredients that end in '-ose,' syrups and honey should raise some red flags that this food may contain excessive amounts of sugar."

She also points out that ingredients are listed in the order from the greatest amount to the least. This will also provide some indication of whether the food will offer the nutrients you're looking for, or wanting to avoid.

Check the serving size.

"What you consider to be a serving could be different from the serving size the manufacturer used to calculate nutritional information," advised Valentine. An oversized portion could quickly turn a good choice into one that is better avoided.

Valentine says size is also important when evaluating options. "If you're comparing two items to make the better choice, you'll want to know if they're based on equivalent servings."

Health Canada's proposed changes include standard serving sizes in similar foods, making it easier for consumers to weigh their options.

Be aware of fats.

Notice the healthy fats and less healthy fats.

"Saturated and trans fats can increase your risk for chronic disease, so it's best to minimize those in your diet," suggested Valentine. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from nuts and plants are healthier options that may decrease your risk of heart disease.

Judge the %DV.

Valentine explains that this is the percentage of nutrients you ought to have daily, provided by one serving. These are the numbers that require some interpretation.

"The rule of thumb is 15 per cent or greater is a lot, and five percent or less is a little." Valentine says to use this guideline to focus on the nutrients you need to get in a day-fibre and vitamins, for example- and to be cautious of excessive cholesterol, fat, sugar and sodium which contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Valentine says she is pleased that Health Canada's recommendations include adding this to nutrition labels to educate consumers.

Focus on the good, rather than the bad.

Valentine says it's better to take a positive attitude rather than negative about our food choices.

"If you use this information to focus your efforts on adding healthier foods to your diet, you'll indirectly avoid the less healthy."

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