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Learn to Read Labels

Food labels are something you will have to pay attention to when you go shopping. Manufacturers of foods in North America are required to provide accurate information about their food products. You can find this information on food labels, and most food labels today are made to be easy-to-read. There are several elements to a food label:

  • Identification. The front of the food label or package will likely tell you the brand of the product and what the product is.
  • Information about the Manufacturer. Most food packages will tell you where a food was made, who imported it (if the food was imported) and how you can contact the manufacturer or importer. This information can be useful if you want to contact someone about the exact food value content of a product or if you a question or compliant about the food.
  • Codes. Most food packages contain codes and numbers that contain information about where the product was made and when. Often, expiry dates are listed somewhere among these numbers. It is a good practice to glance at expiry dates of your food to make sure that you are getting fresh food products.
  • Logos, Advertisements, and Claims. Many foods will have logos or claims on the front of the label or food package. These may contain terms such as “light,” “the best,” “healthy,” “natural,” and others. These will likely catch your attention when you are looking for heart-healthy choices. However, you should never take this information at face value. Treat these claims as advertisements rather than as facts. Many foods that claim to be “low-cholesterol” are full of saturated fats that are terrible for your cholesterol level. Many foods that claim to be “low fat” still have plenty of fat or have small portion sizes.
  • Ingredients. This is where the information starts to get really useful. Almost all packaged products have lists of ingredients used in the making of the product. To know how really healthy a food is, you should start here. Ingredients are listed in order of amount. That means that if a label reads “peanut butter, sugar, chocolate solids”, the product contains mostly peanut butter, with less sugar than peanut butter, and less chocolate solids than sugar. Ingredients listed in brackets are ingredients that are part of something else or contain more information about an ingredient.

For example, if an ingredients list reads “vitamins (thiamin hydrochloride, niacinamide, folic acid)”, then the vitamins in the food consist of thiamin hydrochloride, niacinamide, folic acid. When shopping to lower your cholesterol, always read the ingredients list. Look for foods that contain healthy foods first on the ingredient list (meaning that there are more of these foods) and foods that have ingredient lists that contain few saturated fats.

  • Nutrition Facts. This is where you need to turn your eyes every time you pick up a food you may want to eat. Even if you can’t read half the ingredients on the ingredient list, even if you are not sure what you are looking for, this is the section of the food label that can help you separate claims from facts.

Food labels in North America now contain a simplified section of information about the food. This is often found on the side of the box or the back of a food package. This part of the label lists portion sizes, the percent or amount of fats, vitamins and other nutrients the food provides, and the amounts of fats and calories the food contains. This is information you can use. Each time that you pick up a food, look at the label. Check the portion size, the amount of fats and the types of fats in the food.

The amount of saturated and trans fats should be very small and the portion size should be large. For example, consider a serving of cream. For a 15 ml serving (one tablespoon) the cream has 1 gram of saturated fats. While the amount of fat is small, the serving is small, too, meaning that the product is actually 8% fat. Soy milk, a much better alternative, has 1 gram of saturated fat in a two cup serving, making it much lower in saturated fat. When making healthy choices, check this part of every food level for the following:

  • Serving Size: This will tell you whether a food is really healthy or whether it just appears so due to a very tiny portion size.
  • Fat/Lipid: Look at the gram amounts of trans and saturated fats. The lower the better. The lower the overall amount of fat, the better.
  • Sodium: Look for foods that contain as little as possible.
  • Calories: Choosing lower-calorie foods is better for your heart, your cholesterol level, and your overall health.
  • Fiber: Foods high in fibre are good for your health and cholesterol level.
  • Cholesterol: Foods that are lower in dietary cholesterol.
  • Percentage: The right hand side of many labels will tell you what percentage of the “recommended daily value” the food represents. For example, a product may claim to provide 30% of a day’s recommended daily value of iron. This means that one serving size of the food will give 30% of the fiber you need all day. When shopping for foods, make sure to choose foods that have the lowest percentages for values such as sodium, cholesterol, and fats, and moderate percentages for values such as fiber. This will help ensure that you are making heart-healthy choices.

You may notice that a number of foods do not contain food labels at all. Foods sold in bulk, fresh produce, homemade foods (foods sold at bake sales or at farmer’s stands) and prepared foods in restaurants and cafeterias do not have these labels.

In the case of fresh produce and some bulk foods (dried legumes, lentils, spices) this does not always matter, as you generally know that these foods are healthy and contain no fats, cholesterol, or other harmful elements. On the other hand, no food labels are a good reason to avoid restaurant and take-out meals, as you have no control or choice over how much food you are eating.

If you really want to know how many fats, sodium, fiber, and cholesterol you are eating in foods that come with no label you may want to invest in food guides that estimate how much fat, calories, and other components are in the more common food products.

Some restaurants have even begun to offer ingredient lists and food value information about their meals, but this information is not always easy to find - it is sometimes posted in the kitchen or on the restaurant web page. In the future, it is possible that more restaurants will offer patrons this information so that diners can make more informed decisions about what they eat.

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