UNDERSTANDING LABELS, KNOWING FACTS
Canada has recently updated its legislation about Nutrition Facts Tables (NFTs) but has it make it more clear for consumers? That is a whole argument by itself right there. What I am aiming is to provide some light as of what the ingredients really mean for you and how to read, and most importantly, interpret that information.
Let’s begin saying that there are certain foods that are specifically prohibited from displaying a Nutrition Facts Table. Not because they don’t need one, on the contrary, because they need a more specific and detailed list of ingredients and quantities. Those are infant formulas, liquid diets, meal replacements. There are other foods that are completely or usually exempted from NFTs. Small packs of crackers for example are not required to have a NFT.
Let’s focus on the foods that do need a NFT and within it, the first thing we read:
Portion size: the definition is still very vague: it is supposed to represent the amount that an individual would eat at once. But, aren’t we all different? Yes! So labels are supposed to include quantity in number of items (i.e. 2 cookies) or grams. The latter it is harder to interpret or visualize, and here is where our work really starts. Always start reading the portion size, trying to visualize how much it really is. If the amount is provided in grams, look at the whole container and how much grams that is, then estimate the portion size.
Another, sometimes confusing, piece of information on the labels is the Reasonable Daily Intake or RDI. That amount refers to the daily intake level of a nutrient that is considered be sufficient to meet the requirements of 97–98% of healthy individuals. So the percentage for a certain ingredient represents how much of the daily requirement of that particular ingredient is covered by that portion size. We can say it represents the nutritional contribution of specific foods to the diet.
Energy: energy is measured using “Calories”. Some nutrition schools use this value to determine how much of this particular food you can take per day. It would be equal to the amount of energy you spend or use during your day if you want to maintain weight or less, if you are aiming to lose weight.
Fat: In this group it is necessary to focus on Trans fats content: Trans fats are fats that have been hydrogenated (added hydrogen by chemical reactions) or modified while processing foods. It is understandable now why processed foods have higher content of trans fats. There are, however, some foods that naturally contain trans fats. Small amounts of trans fat (generally 2-5% of the fat content) are naturally present in foods such as dairy products, beef and lamb. Why it is important to pay attention to this type of “unhealthy” fat is that science shows that consuming them raises the blood levels of the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol (serum LDL-cholesterol). LDL-cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. In addition to raising ‘bad’ cholesterol, trans fat also reduces the blood levels of the so-called ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol). HDL-cholesterol protects against heart disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the total amount of trans fats consumed per day should be less than 1% of your daily energy intake.
There are also type of fats that are “good” fats. Fat in the diet allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, and E. While saturated and trans fat tend to increase the risk of heart disease, monounsaturated fat and omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats generally lower the risk of heart disease. Oils high in monounsaturates are olive oil and canola oil. Omega-6 polyunsaturates are highest in vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower and soybean oils; and omega-3 polyunsaturates are highest in vegetable oils such as canola and soybean oils, as well as in fish oils.
Sodium: sodium does not have a RDI and the 2016 Hypertension Canada Guidelines suggest that the maximum amount of daily intake of sodium should be equal or less than 2000 mg (5 g of salt) or 1 teaspoon. This amount is really low so be very vigilant when looking at this numbers on the labels. This amount is not only for people taking medication for high blood pressure but for all healthy individuals that want to keep their values normal.
Potassium: same as Sodium it doesn’t have a RDI. It is an important value for individuals on certain medications like water pills.
Carbohydrates: this value represents a lot of ingredients: sugars , starch, dietary fibre (fibre that is not digested or processed by our small intestine), sugar alcohols (e.g.maltitol syrup, sorbitol, xylitol, used for flavour), and others. Sugars are now to be described in a different section, that is to show their amount individually. Another key point here to pay attention to. World Health Organization recommends no more than 6 g of sugar per day. It would be very stressful to reach that number, however, do your best to keep it as low as possible during your day. Sugar has been linked to high risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Protein: they are organic compounds that consist of large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies.
Vitamins and Minerals: Declarations of vitamins and mineral nutrients in the Nutrition Facts Table are based on the combined total of both the naturally occurring nutrient content and any added nutrient content of a food. Vitamins and mineral nutrients are declared as percentages of the daily value per serving of stated size.
All these values and information can be overwhelming but it can be easily taken into account in your daily life. You could start by reading the labels and noting down how much of a certain ingredient you intake is in two days. Then you can move on and add a few more foods etc. This exercise helps just to realize how much (or less) of certain ingredients you consume. The information can be very valuable to think why your “diet to lose weight” is not working or why your iron levels are low, among other things. If you are still wondering how to analyze your or your loved one intakes feel free to send me a note and we can work together towards your goal.