Navigating the Numbers

Caroline Knox

Caroline Knox

Here is your guide to navigating the numbers

Read the “Recipe”
The first thing you should always look at is the list of ingredients. They’re listed in order from the highest concentration to the lowest.  This means if sugar or fat is listed in the first few ingredients, the item is high in those areas. If the package boasts “made with real fruit” but the fruit is at the end of a long list of ingredients, there isn’t much fruit in it at all.

“When a food is processed, nutrients and vitamins are lost,” says Debi Silber, registered dietician, whole health coach and president of Lifestyle Fitness Inc.

“And chemicals and additives are injected back in. A good tip when reading the ingredient list is that if you can’t pronounce it or wouldn’t find the ingredient listed in your favorite cookbook, it’s probably best not to eat it.”

How much is a serving?
This tells you how much food is in each serving size. Read this carefully because the serving size can often be much smaller than what a person might normally eat. All the nutritional information on the label is based on serving size. If the serving size is ½ cup and you eat two cups, multiply all the numbers by four. Suddenly  fat goes from3 grams to 12grams!

Calories
Calories are not merely something to be avoided – they are a measure of how much energy is contained in food.  In short, we need them to survive. The average diet used to calculate the percentage of daily value is 2,000 calories a day. This number can go up or down, depending on gender, height and activity level.

The “%” daily which,  tells you what percentage of your daily recommended intake of particular you’re getting. Remember these numbers are also based on serving size, and may need to be adjusted.

Fat and Cholesterol
In both Canada and the U.S., food companies must list total fat as well as the amounts of saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats have been shown to increase cholesterol levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fat intake to less than 7 per cent of total calories.

Unlike other fats, trans fats are not essential and have no health benefits. Trans fats are especially bad for you because they lower levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) and increase levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) – greatly increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Sodium
Food producers are adding whopping amounts of sodium (salt) to our diets and it’s having a huge impact on our health. Diets high in sodium can result in hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Salt is in everything – even in places you wouldn’t expect to find it (like some baby foods), so look carefully. The recommended daily intake of sodium is 2,400mg for adults, a number most North Americans far exceed.

“Make sure you read the ingredients carefully,” says Silber.

“Salt often appears under different names – MSG (monosodium glutamate), sodium, baking soda, baking powder, brine and soy sauce are all other words for salt.”

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrate is an umbrella term for sugars, fiber and starch. Starch is not listed on the nutritional label, but can be easily calculated by subtracting the sugar and fiber from the total carbohydrate value.

Some sugars are naturally-occurring, while others are added during production. A quick glance at the ingredient list will tell you if sugar has been added. Ideally you want to limit your sugar intake and choose natural sugars (like those found in fruits and vegetables) over added sugar.

Fiber helps the digestive system function and has been shown to decrease cholesterol levels and protect against some cancers. Fiber can be found in legumes (beans, lentils and peas), whole grains, fruits and vegetables. “When reading the nutritional information, look for more than 3g of fiber per serving,” recommends Silber.

Protein
Protein is found in almost every living cell in our bodies and is an essential part of your diet. How much protein you need depends on how active you are. TA good guide: ensure at least 20 to 30 per cent of your calories come from good protein sources such as lean meats, eggs and dairy.

The Good Stuff
Most North Americans don’t get enough Vitamins A and C, calcium and iron in their diets. The nutritional information panel can help ensure you buy foods high in these nutrients.

Tips and Tricks
“Grocery stores are organized in such a way that the least-processed and most healthy foods can be found on the edges of the store, “says Silber. “All the heavily processed food is found on the interior aisles.”

Ideally, you want to do most of your shopping on the edges – dairy, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, with a quick trip into the aisles for grains, nuts, seeds and beans.

When you do buy packaged food, read the ingredient list first and then move to the nutritional label. Try to purchase items with:
- less than 10 grams of fat per 100
- less than 3 grams of cholesterol per 100
-  grams sugar per 100
- more than 3 grams

A good guide to help keep calories in check is: anything with less than 40 calories per serving is low-calorie food; 100 calories per serving is moderate; and more than 400 calories per serving is high and should be limited.

Know the Numbers

The information on the side of food packages is designed to help the consumer make healthier choices. The writing everywhere else on the package is designed information label is the best way to ensure you, and your family, are making healthy food choices when you shop.

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About Caroline Knox
Caroline E. Knox is a freelance writer and proud nerd. She may be the only person you ever meet with a degree in both neuroscience and journalism. An avid traveller and photographer, Caroline has written stories from Botswana, Philadelphia, Thailand, Seoul and the top of Mount Fuji. Now, as a stay-at-home Mom, her travels are less exotic, with far more luggage. When she isn’t running after her daughter, Caroline loves to learn new things. She has recently taken up web design and Indian cooking – but still has not mastered going to bed on time.

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