It is not my intent to promote changes in your diet. On the contrary, I am sharing facts from my research and experience which I hope will be food for thought when you're in the grocery aisle and have to read labels. In fact, I believe that every human being is unique and people should always seek professional advice prior to following a new nutrition regimen. The Canadian Food Guide provides information regarding our requirements for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, however, how much of this information does our population put into practice?
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a nutrition conference in Toronto. It was not a surprise to learn that the general population requires more support in understanding the Canadian Food Guide, which was not designed as a weight-loss tool. The guide promotes a pattern of healthy eating over a lifetime. Dietitians at Eat Right Ontario are also available to answer any of your questions at no charge. Wonderful tools to make better choices, certainly…Nonetheless, I believe that our population is aware of the basics of the food pyramid; what they don't realize is that in order to follow the guide we need to have a better understanding of food labels, food quantity, and food substitutions.
Although I am passionate about fitness and nutrition, I don't spend hours at the supermarket reading labels. I mainly use my education, common sense, and experience to choose what meets my family's needs. I love ice cream and my child loves Fruit Loops cereal once in a while. Surprised? One cup of Fruit Loops may not provide the proper nutrition value for my child, but our home made meals make up for these treats. The media can be a confusing medium to get information, so I personally choose to: learn the facts, eat well 90% of the time, and savor every bite!
Let's discuss some facts. The primary fact I learned is that nutrition claims are mainly allowed if the food meets the strict criteria outlined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising, however we must learn to decode the meaning of these labels which can be confusing and unclear.
Low in fat. Rice, pasta, cereals, vegetables and fruits, beans, white and shell fish, lean white meat, and skim milk are some examples of low fat products. Foods labels may contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats. As a rule, I limit saturated fats and trans fats. Food balance and exercise are crucial in maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Of course, my family does enjoy a cookie or two on occasion, which contain trans-fat as they are usually made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening. Frosting is another source of trans- fat and so is frozen pizza, however moderation is fundamental. Educating our families with the reasons to limit these tasty treats will promote a healthier lifestyle.
Fat free. Fat free products should be carefully considered since they may not meet the nutrition needs our bodies require. As an example, we find in the supermarket aisle "fat free mayonnaise". It is important to remember that fat adds flavor and texture. Fat helps us better absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. When fat is removed, the mayo's flavor is boosted with high fructose corn syrup. In fact some "fat free" products may be considered fat-free in small portions, and eating a large amount may end up doubling the fat content. Instead, try healthy fats and avoid hormone–deterring products. Some healthy alternatives are olive oil, avocados, and peanut oil which promote appetite control and reduce inflammation and heart disease.
Sugar free. While sugar free beverages seem like an excellent option to reduce calories, it is important to understand what sugar substitutes contain. Some sugar free products trade sugar for fat and sodium. We are told that these products aid in saving calories and in maintaining weight, however the consumption of these products may increase sugar cravings and calorie intake. Artificial sweeteners are also listed as Acesulfame Potassium, which is composed of three chemical ingredients: phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. Alternate healthy options are raw local honey, coconut nectar and stevia. This is a very contentious topic which requires careful consideration. For more information regarding side effects of artificial sweeteners, contact your doctor or a registered dietitian.
No Sugar added. We tend to miss an important fact: the product may not contain added sugar, molasses or honey, but no one tells us about the natural sugar left in the product. Read the label carefully and check how many grams of natural sugar per pound or liter you find. For more information regarding the criteria for the nutrient content claim no added sugars, click here.
Cholesterol Free or low in Cholesterol. These labels may be confusing. Cholesterol is found in animal products (eggs, shellfish) so "cholesterol free salad dressing" never had cholesterol to begin with. Foods with trans fats and saturated fats may claim zero cholesterol, however the intake of these fats increases the risks associated with heart disease or stroke. When you go to the store and read "cholesterol free," keep in mind that saturated fat has a bigger impact on raising cholesterol levels and that trans fats may raise LDL (bad cholesterol levels).
Low sodium. People are often told that too much sodium may lead to high blood pressure and cause fluid retention. However, the average person in North America still eats five or more teaspoons of salt each day. People tend to reduce the amount of sodium by purchasing low sodium versions of crackers and soups, yet be mindful of the fat content. For more information regarding sodium in your diet click here.
Organic. If the food is listed as organic, it must contain over 95% of organic content. The term organic refers to the unaltered products used to grow food: food free of synthetic pesticides, GMOs, and petroleum fertilizers. Livestock must have access to the outdoors and be grass fed. They may be free of antibiotics and growth hormones. This is another controversial subject which also requires pragmatic consideration. Understanding terminologies such as organic, natural, free range, pasture-raised, no hormone-added, and non-GMO is essential when shopping for organic products. In order to purchase authentic organic products, we should keep in mind the aforementioned terminologies and look for "Canada Organic" labels and GMO-Free seals, which mean that not more than 0.9% of the food is genetically engineered.
NOTE: The information provided does not reflect the views of my organization and it is shared for informative purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. I hope you find this information educational and that you gained a better understanding of what labels are telling us. Our world and lifestyles have changed and so have our eating habits and the ingredients in our foods. It is my hope that my notes from my attendance of various workshops and conferences have enlightened you as much as they have educated me. Good nutrition habits flow with balance and education. Learning the medical facts before depriving ourselves is essential to lead a healthier lifestyle and promote everlasting happiness.