EP 48 – Eat This: How to read nutrition labels

I know that pretty much in every single episode, you’ve heard me say, okay strongly recommend, that you eat more fruits and vegetables, whole foods, nuts and seeds. You know, all the healthy things. But what about when you pick up something that’s in a package? How do you know if it would fit the healthy enough bar that we, I, and you set? Anytime you pick up the box, jar, can, plastic wrapped something with a combination of ingredients, it has a nutrition label on it. Do you stop and read it? Maybe you don’t because it’s a minefield of information and you truly don’t know what it means, what to look at, the numbers, ingredients or both and how exactly to read it and understand what it’s trying to tell you. And quite honestly why do you care if it tastes good, right? Well if you have allergies or food sensitivities, you are scouring that ingredient list for anything that you can’t eat and your shopping trip can take a lot longer to fill your cart with safe foods. If you have high blood pressure or heart issues, I hope you’re checking out the sodium content, especially in something like pasta sauce, there’s a lot of sodium hidden in there. But why else would you read the nutrition facts and ingredients – aka, the label? So you know what your next mouthful will do for you, or not do for you. You’d be amazed at what goes into that morning bowl of what you think is a better option of cereal. Or the sauce on those scrumptious wings that you have a hankering for. And you’re likely plugging your ears saying la, la, la, la because you don’t want to ignore them as they are calling your name for dinner, and as your tastebuds are waking up and you’re salivating while saying “I’m coming”, because well, you know why not?! And that’s just the wings, not the blue cheese or ranch dressing that you’re going to dip them in. That ingredient list becomes illegible after water, oil and vinegar.

Nope, you don’t see nutrition labels plastered on your apple, banana or avocado. Or come to think of it, the package of naked chicken wings, right? Well that’s because there are certain foods that don’t need labeling.

Yes, reading nutrition labels can be a minefield of confusion so today on EAT THIS with Lianne, yep a deep dive into what I think you need to know, what to look out for and why it’s worth the extra minutes to turn that package, tin, or bag around and read about what you’re about to take home with you and eat.

Way back in about 2008, I decided that parents needed more help than I could give them in my Mommy Chef Cooking classes. So I decided that my next venture was going to be a food delivery of baby and toddler food service. Yep, I did a month long pilot project, made batches and batches of food, figured out how to package them up, get the orders all over the city and did my foods need a label? Well no they didn’t. As a part of this venture, I needed to know what the requirements were before I jumped into this exhausting service – which didn’t financially pan out, in case you wondered what happened to Sprout Right To-Go! Yep I had the logo and everything. What a waste… I digress. 

There are foods that are exempt by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to have a mandatory nutrition label. Yes the Nutrition Facts table appears on almost all prepackaged foods, but not all because some prepackaged foods under certain conditions like they might be fresh fruit and vegetables, raw meat and poultry (except when ground), and raw fish and seafood, foods that have insignificant amounts of nutrients like coffee beans, tea leaves, herbs and spices, and food colours. Those baked goods from the coffee shop or bakery don’t need to have a label if they are sold where they are made. Ever noticed a label on a bottle of wine or other alcohol? Nope. Foods sold at road-side stands, craft shows, flea markets, fairs, farmers’ markets and sugar bushes by the same person who made them don’t need a label. Just as my Sprout Right to-go foods didn’t need a label because nothing was being sold in a store and the ingredients were on the website to see as parents ordered.

There are two areas on the nutrition label that you need to know how to navigate. First it’s the Nutrition Facts table. It’s helpful, but could say more. Really it’s purpose is so you know the calories and nutrients the item contains. It’s supposed to make it easy to compare similar foods, which to me needs addressing because it’s not easy. Each label can have different serving sizes and if you don’t hone in on that first, your comparison is useless. The label is also meant to help you look for foods that have a little or a lot of a certain nutrient and help select foods for special diets. Does that part of the label accomplish that? Sure, in some ways, but not without some calculating, strong reading glasses and confusion. 

Nutrition Fact must include the serving size, calories, % Daily Value or DV and 13 core nutrients; fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The format is consistent across all food products. Sometimes there are extras, but that list is the bare minimum. Can you take what it says as gospel. Nope, because calorie counts on food labels and within food databases which spit out this information once ingredients and amounts are entered, are often off as much as 25%.

Here’s what I want you to look at:

  • Serving size – this can trip you up. Thinking that there isn’t much sodium in your pasta sauce could really be because the serving size is small. Mine Farm Boy Arrabaita sauce says, it has 200mg sodium per ½ cup. As an adult Health Canada suggests to consume between 1500 milligrams (mg) per day and not exceed 2300 mg per day, which is the equivalent of just over one teaspoon of salt. So I need to know that if I’ve salted my pasta, if I have garlic bread with salted butter, then I’m going to be getting up there. And am I only going to have half a cup of sauce on my pasta? Ragu pasta sauce, has 480mg sodium per ½ cup. So this is exactly why I say read your labels because it’s something to consider. 
  • Next up is fats. Listed is saturated and trans fats. Well, trans fats were banned as of Sept 2020, so no product can be sold in Canada with trans or hydrogenated fats. The total fat on there could say 11g as my organic mayo said for instance. Then under the total fat, it says saturated fat is 1.5g – and this serving size is per tablespoon just so you know. That means that 9.5g of fat that isn’t listed is monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. Would that be useful to know. I guess those words are too long to fit on there, so now you know that the rest of the fat leans towards a neutral or good fat.  
  • Next up is cholesterol – well it’s been proven that eating cholesterol doesn’t really impact your blood cholesterol, so honestly this is rather outdated. My mayo says it has 10g of cholesterol, which isn’t surprising as it has egg yolks in it. A great source of cholesterol which is important to transport your hormones around your body. Quick side bar – if you have high cholesterol, ditching the eggs isn’t the way to go. You need WAY more fibre, sort out your constipation and bowel habit and to sort your liver and gall bladder out. You’re welcome. 
  • Carbohydrates are next, that’s all about the energy that you get from food. First is the total carb that you’re getting, then the fibre, because carbs are good sources of fibre sometimes and then sugars. This is where it gets a bit complicated. Let’s say you have a loaf of Wonder Bread at home. Check the label. It should say 24 g of carbs per two slices and less than 1 g of fibre. Well you have to know it’s totally a white flour product without any fibre. Then the sugar content is 3g, almost a teaspoon. The third ingredient is sugar so that’s not surprising to have that amount of sugar. More than what’s needed to help make the yeast work. Some labels have ‘from added sugar’ which would mean from sugar as ingredient whereas if you have a dish with rice in it, there will be a carb value on the label because rice is a carb source. 

This is where most of my clients get tripped up. Don’t take the total carb value as it’s not a good product. The sugar is where my eyes first go to – and make my kids groan and grab whatever it is out of my hands because they know that I’m about to dish up some not-so-good news to them about what they are drinking or eating. I totally get the MOOOOOOM on this one. The amount of sugar is reported in grams. That means nothing to most of us, so take at number – if it’s a can of 12 oz or 330 bottle of coke it says 39 grams sugar on the label. Divide the 39 by 4 and you’ll have a visual on how much is in there because 4 g of sugar equals one teaspoon. In this case, that drink contains almost 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s just shy of ¼ cup of sugar in that one bottle of pop. I dare you to look at the next drink that you have and calculate it. Honestly, the kids love doing this. When I was in the Bahamas sailing over March break, they had a local drink called Bahamas Goombay Punch. My kids loved it. Well duh, it has 50g of sugar in it, so 12 and a half teaspoons, well over ¼ cup. I banned my kids from drinking it after we did the calculations. They didn’t like me much after that. Having said that, the ginger beer that we were making our Dark and Stormys with also had that amount, so after one, I was done with that!

What about the percentage that you see on the label and the DV?

Well that’s meant to act as a benchmark to determine if that food is high or low in a certain nutrient. 

While I could explain this to you, I thought hearing from Jess Haines, the Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of Guelph would be fun, because she’s involved in some really cool stuff.

Dr. Jess Haines is an Associate Professor of Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada. Dr. Haines’s research focuses on developing strategies to support children’s healthy eating and growth. Dr. Haines is the Co-Director of the Guelph Family Health Study, a long-term study of families with young children

To recap, once you see that percent sign, the 5% DV or less is a little of a nutrient and 15% DV or more is a lot of a nutrient. They only list four nutrients – vitamin A, calcium, iron and vitamin C. The rest of the daily values are based on what has been said is a healthy diet and involves too much math to explain on a podcast without a calculator, whiteboard and people that are math smarter than me. We are safe to say that I don’t hold much value in the DV mentioned here, so stick to the gram numbers so you know what you’re getting. 

Let’s move onto the ingredient list

You MUST use this alongside those grams because it lets you know what is added into the product. Take infant formula for example. If you read the ingredient list, you’ll see lactose listed on most products. And while you’d think that a formula is made from milk, which naturally contains lactose, when I first saw it I wondered why lactose was on the ingredient list. Formula is a perfect example of the science and formulation behind a processed food – I’m not slamming it, it just is what it is. Ingredients need to be protein – that comes from casein or whey, then they add in nutrients because some could have been lost in processing or they need to add extras like iron. The lactose being added is there because it has to be added back in. Protein powder from dairy, well it has been separated. In the case of infants having issues with lactose and parents thinking their baby is lactose intolerant happens because the lactose added to a formula is more than what’s found in regular milk or breastmilk and it actually overloads the baby’s gut leading to gassiness and even colic. Digestion can’t keep up with that much lactose in one feeding. For me, this was a huge a-ha about food production and how it can affect us. It also explained why there is such a thing as lactose or gentle formulas for babies with tricky tummies. They use sucrose instead. The carb value and sweetness still needs to be in there, but it’s an ingredient not naturally occurring. 

Any ingredient that is on the label has been added. Ingredients must be declared in descending order of proportion by weight, as determined before they are combined to make the food” Any ingredient that is in the food or also enhances a food must be listed, so like food colouring to make your yellow icing look like sunshine, or the cocoa that’s in your Oreo to make it look as dark as it does. Those all have to be listed on the ingredient list. 

I’m not going to go into the sinister ingredients in food here, because that’s its own episode, but it is important to understand that the ingredient list goes in order of as I said descending of what’s in it. Your salad dressing usually starts with water, your tomatoes should start with tomatoes, if it doesn’t put it back on the shelf. My pasta sauce has salt and sugar in it and are part of the last three ingredients on the list. 

The more ingredients, the more stuff in it. That could be good or bad. Michael Polan, in promoting his book In Defence of Food in 2008, said don’t eat anything with more than 5 ingredients. Well, I think that you need to assess that based on what you’ve got in your hand. And food manufacturers could put the name methylxanthine alkaloid 1,3,7-trimethylpurine-2,6-dione on the label or just say coffee and be done with it. Sometimes science needs to be on there. If you head back to episode 7 and 8 about is sugar evil and Barry Friedman who is living the sugar free dream, we went much more into sugar and all the different names for it on the ingredient list. 

To sum up, the nutrition label is important to at least glance at every time you’re choosing a food. And this is fun to do around the table with your family not just for us nutritionists. Know what’s in your food, and teach your kids if they are still at home, or you have them. First check the serving size. We know from what Jess said that changes are coming by 2021 to standardize that for us to not have to shop with a calculator. Then sure check out the calories, but head down to the sodium, carbs and sugar and fibre. Remember that the total fat could contain some neutral monounsaturated fats as well as good polyunsaturated also called omega 3 and 6 fats. If you’re looking for a protein rich food, then check out that amount. It’s all important, it just depends on what you’re going for. 

And if it’s that kind of day where you need to put your fingers in your ear and sing la, la, la, la and enjoy that mouthful of whatever, have at it. Check it later though, so you know if it was worth it. 

Thank you to Jess for joining me today. She’s a smartie pants who we will have on again at some point and if you’ve found this helpful and want to know more about ingredients and how to navigate that list and, reach out on social media on @SproutRight or @liannephillipson handles. Find my award-winning book, Sprout Right Family Food, on sproutright.com or send me an email through either site. I do answer as many are quite surprised when they see my signature in their reply. 

Coming up in December, because it’s the end of November as we record this, head to sproutright.com/advent to join the list of people we are going to send a daily email to for the month of December to keep you on track as we hit the holidays. Yes it could be possible, even during Covid to not totally fall off the wagon and down the hill this holiday season. 

Thank you for tuning in, thank you for sharing because I know so many of you are doing that, so keep on that please.

Please remember to eat this one mouthful at a time. Also remember that you rock!

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