Reading the rainbow

I am frequently asked about food labels and nutrition fact tables and learning often follows a process that started long before I was asked to help. If you have ever tried to read a food label or nutrition fact table, you may be familiar with this route:
-the inquirer usually starts reading labels to compare one or two nutrients on the labels that they have developed interested in (ex. sodium or fibre) usually in response to a diagnosis (ex. high blood pressure) or decision to change ones diet (ex. to lose weight).
-the after a few trips to the grocery store and practicing comparing these nutrient values, they start to wonder what is a high amount and a low amount of these nutrients. Is 1g of fibre a lot? Is 2g of saturated fat too much? Of course, you cannot expect to find the same amount of nutrients in different products. For example, the healthy amount of fibre expected in a slice of bread is different than that found in a breakfast cereal.
-naturally the next big question is what are these % I see on the left hand side of the table?
-its usually around this time that one will realize they need help interpret these values and require guidelines for the values and percentages. Hopefully they turn to a dietitian who can dish out some professional advice.

Reading labels is an invaluable tool to help you purchase healthy foods but it does take practice and some patience and time. After all the above questions are answered, my clients often then ask “but can the values on the nutrition fact table be trusted?”. My simple response is “yes but… but there may be some discrepancies”. I am preparing myself for a barrage of questions and concerns in the coming weeks due to a recent Montreal Gazette article highlighted the fact that the CFIA has found that some food labels do not provide accurate information. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows for 20% difference between what the label states and what is really found in the product. Even with this allowance, some labels tested provide an inaccurate picture of their food. The CFIA cannot test all the products on the shelves so issues of problems can be alarming since there are likely products slipping through the cracks. Obviously, the scary stories are those about under reporting the unhealthy ingredients such as sodium, saturated and trans fats.

There are other ways to evaluate a food other than its nutrition fact table- the ingredient list is one example. Reading the ingredient list is useful to ensure that less healthy ingredients are not among the most included ingredients as well as to verify if the ingredients used are processed or not (ex. whole grain). However, its impossible to translate that information into calories or grams of saturated fat so people will often refer to the nutrition fact table.

After hearing about these problems with nutrition fact tables, my advice is to continue to use them to identify healthy products because they are the easiest and most straightforward way to understanding what you are eating. Unfortunately, the nutrition fact table is all we got. You may stumble upon a few products provide inaccurate information but chances are, unless you eat the same foods all the time, variety in your diet will help you avoid any problems.
If we start to question all food labels then whats the point in reading them at all. If we can’t trust the table, what about the ingredient lists? In fact, whats the point in trying to eat healthy when everywhere you turn you hear a conflicting advice (soy is good, soy is bad, butter is good, then bad, then good again, eggs are bad turned good….etc). This spiral downwards pulls you away from your goal of being more aware if what you are eating, using your head when choosing products and chances are the products you buy will give you accurate values on the labels.

For someone who is just starting out reading labels and becoming more aware of what they are eating, don’t despair. There is a point in reading labels, even if they all aren’t 100% accurate. Nutrition fact tables are a tool, and like all things in life, they are not perfect. Learning how to interpret them (regardless of if they are within 20% of the stated amounts) will open your mind to a whole new way of judging food and taking control of your health.

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