Interpreting the information in a food product’s Nutrition Facts table is as confusing as walking through a maze! This table has very important information but it can be so hard to decipher! That makes it difficult to determine which foods are healthy and which foods are harmful. What does all the information mean? What should you look for? What should you avoid? What about the nutritional claims that are on packaged foods – what do those really mean? Let’s get the confusion sorted out!
Why is it important to read and understand the Nutrition Facts? There are a few good reasons:
- To be able to compare the nutrition of products, and decide which products are healthier for you.
- To become more aware of the nutrition in the foods you are consuming. This includes awareness of both the good nutrients and the harmful nutrients.
- To find specific foods that meet special dietary restrictions you might have. For example – if you require foods that are low in sugar or sodium, you will be able to judge the amount of these items by reading and understanding the nutrition facts.
- To find products that contain specific ingredients that you are trying to increase in your diet, such as fiber or protein.
What information does the Nutrition Facts table give you?
- the serving size
- the calories
- information about at least 13 core nutrients: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fiber, sugars, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron. Some products have other nutrients listed as well, such other vitamins and minerals.
When reading the Nutrition Facts start at the top and read down toward the bottom. Follow these 5 steps to determine whether or not the food is healthy:
- Read the serving size. Is this serving size small, or large? Or is it what you might normally eat at one time? All the information below the serving size is referring to the specified serving size. For instance if the specified serving size is ½ cup – the listed amount of calories, fat content, sugar content, fiber, etc are what you will be getting when you consume ½ cup of this product.
- Look at the calories. Theoretically the calories refer to the amount of energy this product will give you, per serving. Calorie count is not an accurate way to decide if a product is healthy. The calories could be from an unhealthy source (such as high fructose corn syrup or too much fat). Or the product could contain harmful chemicals, which often don’t have calories. A prime example: Coke Zero, which has harmful chemical sweeteners, is very unhealthy and has no calories. Remember: just because something is ‘low calorie’ does not make it healthy!
- Look at the % Daily Value (% DV). A scale of 0% to 100% is used for the nutrients – this is per serving. You will be able to get an idea if there is a lot (indicated by 15% DV or more) or a little amount (indicated by 5% DV or less) of each nutrient per serving.
- Look at the important nutrients – the ones your body needs: fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, as well as protein. Try to choose products that have a higher amount of these nutrients.
- Look at the nutrients that are not so healthy for you – the ingredients that indicate a product is not necessarily a good choice. These are the ingredients that probably should be limited in your diet, so try to choose products with less of these: sugar, fat, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Note: trans fat is very toxic, and is something that should be totally avoided!
What about nutritional claims? Nutritional claims are optional for food manufacturers. Are these claims pure marketing phrases or do the claims have real meaning?
There are actually two types of nutritional claims: nutrient content claims and health claims. For the purposes of this blog, only the nutrient content claims will be discussed.
Nutrient content claims are marketing phrases and they have real meaning. The intention of nutrient content claims is to highlight the amount of key nutrient(s) in a food. There are government regulations that all nutritional claims must follow, which is the ‘real meaning’ aspect. Some of the nutrient content claims seem to be clear but the true meaning is not what we, the consumers, interpret it to be – that’s the ‘marketing’ aspect.
Here are some of the most common nutrient content claims and what they truly mean: (this is not a complete list by any means!)
- Sugar Free or No Sugar. Food products can contain up to 0.5 grams of sugar AND contain less than 5 calories per specified serving size.
- Fat Free does not mean there is no fat at all. It means the product contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per specified serving size.
- Low Fat / Reduced in Fat indicates the food contains a maximum of 3 grams of fat per specified serving sized.
- Zero Trans Fats or Trans Fat Free does not mean there are no trans fats. The product can contain a maximum of 0.2 grams of trans fats AND 2 grams or less of saturated fat and trans fat combined.
- Zero Calorie, No Calorie or Calorie Free means the product can have up to 5 calories per specified serving size.
- Reduced in Calories means that the food has 25% less calories than the regular version of that food.
- Light has three possible meanings, which can be rather confusing. ‘Light’ is used to refer to foods that are either Reduced in Calories, or Reduced in Fat. It is also used for foods that have light sensory qualities such as light texture, or light taste or light color.
- Cholesterol Free does not actually mean there is no cholesterol. It means that the specified serving size has less than 2 mg of cholesterol AND it has 2 grams or less of trans fat and saturated fat combined.
- Sodium Free does not mean the product has no sodium at all. It means the product has less than 5 mg of sodium per specified serving size.
- Low Sodium foods can contain up to 140 mg of sodium per specified serving size.
- Source of Fiber – there are actually three categories for ‘source of fiber’:
- Source of Fiber indicates the product contains a minimum of 2 grams of fiber per specified serving size.
- High Source of Fiber indicates there is a minimum of 4 grams of fiber contained in the specified serving size.
- Very High Source of Fiber means there is a minimum of 6 grams of fiber per specified serving size.
The Nutrient Content Claims information above indicates there is definitely a discrepancy between the terms used (such as ‘zero trans fats’) and the actual facts about what is actually in the food (such as maximum 0.2 grams of trans fats AND maximum 2 grams of saturated fat and trans fat combined). This discrepancy happens because of the government’s view and their regulations, which creates a sort of ‘loophole’ for food manufacturers to let us think the food is healthy. According to the Canadian Government, the keywords ‘free’, ‘zero’ or ‘without’ mean “The food provides an amount of a nutrient that is so small it likely won’t have any effect on your body.” So this means that refined products can actually contain harmful ingredients we wish to avoid, even when the label says ‘zero’ or ‘free’ or ‘without’. Here is the real problem: the amount of harmful ingredients we are consuming can add up quickly without our realization when we consume several refined products that are labeled ‘zero’ (fill in the blank) harmful ingredients. Buying packaged, refined, manufactured foods can be very dangerous to a person’s health!
The Nutrition Facts table on a product contains a lot of information. The table can tell you if the product contains any real healthy nutritional value such as protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Conversely, you can generally determine if it is high in sodium, sugar, or unhealthy fats – all ingredients that can be very harmful, although beware of words such as ‘zero’, ‘free’ or ‘without’. When it comes to deciphering nutrient claims a person needs to understand the government guidelines to determine exactly what the claims mean.
Are you interested in finding which healthy foods will increase your energy and help you live the life of your dreams? Contact me and let’s talk about it.
HealthyCanadians.gc.ca – food labelling
HealthyCanadians.gc.ca – nutrient content claims
© 2014 Cathy Ormon Health Coach. All rights reserved.