To maintain a healthy diet, most of us tend to focus on whole grain, low fat meals when we go shopping. However it pays off in the long run to learn to read both the ingredients list and the entire nutrition facts table. Apart from the obvious such as the expiry date, and how to preserve the food item, the nutrition ingredients list and nutrition facts label can provide us with valuable information on what we are about to consume.
What to check in packaged food
There are a lot of things listed on a packaged food label. The name of the food, the name of the company, manufacturing country, name and contact information of supplier, ingredients list, nutrition fact table, manufacturing and expiry date, storage instruction, how to use, warning statements etc. All of this information is useful and should be read carefully before consuming the food.
Check the food label
Food label is provided in every packaged food. It contains the necessary nutrition information that may help to choose right food for diet. To understand a food label properly, you need to understand the following labels:
The nutrition list provided on the food package are for one serving size, however all serving sizes differ according to different manufacturers. The quantity is mentioned on the package. Tip: use the Per 100g serving to compare against other products as each ‘serving size’ differs.
Unit of the ingredients
The amount of each nutrient is given in the unit grams or milligrams.
Percent Daily Values
Besides the information of amounts in one serving, the percent (%) daily values are also mentioned. Manufacturers typically assume the daily recommended calorie amount for a person is 2,000 calories, however this is not the case for all people! Some individual require much less calorie intake per day depending on body size and physical activity levels. The section of percent daily values for each ingredient shows the recommended amount of that nutrient per 2,000 calories. Tip: focus more on the number of grams of each nutrient per 100 grams. For example: Sodium (salt) should be less than 400mg per 100g, sugar should be no more that 15g per 100g, and saturated fat should no less than 3g per 100g (1) .
Some ingredients to try and avoid
The quantity found in the processed food can elevate your blood pressure. Although sodium is a necessary nutrient for our cells, as it balances body fluid, builds muscle, and maintains the sense of taste, consuming too much is harmful. Canned food, fast food, sauces, preserved meats etc, contain sodium in high amounts. It should be limited to 1,600 mg sodium per day (equivalent to about 4 grams of salt). Sodium is listed under several names- salt, sodium benzoate or monosodium glutamate (MSG) (2).
High Fructose Corn Syrup
HFC in processed food is a contributing factor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Corn syrup is used widely for its low cost and sweeter taste. It is found in sugar sweetened beverages, sweets, frozen foods, breads, and many prepackaged food items. It upsets our metabolism, and may increase the desire to eat more . It also may increase our levels of bad cholesterol (LDL). Look out for the terms ‘corn syrup’, ‘corn solid’, and ‘corn sweetener’.
Preservatives are used to prevent food from changing color, flavor, or taste. They are mainly named under BHA and BHT. They are found in cereals, jello, gum, and vegetable oil, for example. Look out for Sodium Nitrite, particularly in preserved meat and red meat, as this has also been associated with a higher risk of some cancers(3, 4)
This is an undigestive gluten protein found in wheat, which can trigger digestive and immune distress. This is available mostly in processed foods, wheat-based foods, soy sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, mustard powder for example.
Don’t get the wrong idea from these terms
The term ‘natural’ always catches our eyes. We see the word ‘natural’ in a food label and immediately decide that the food is healthy. But this is not necessarily the case. ‘Natural’ ingredients may also be processed foods. Natural sweeteners for example, such as honey or maple syrup, may be used at a higher content thus increasing the sugar content of the overall food.
Food manufacturers are not required to label a food as containing trans fat if it is less than 0.5 gm trans fat per serving. This does not mean it does not exist! Consuming trans fat on a regular basis, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, insulin resistance and increase bad cholesterol levels. This can be avoided by avoiding foods listing ‘partially hydrogenated oil’, ‘fractioned’ or ‘hydrogenated’ in the list.
‘Reduced’ vs ‘Low’
The terms have different meaning. ‘Low’ means that particular ingredient is 30% or less of the total carbohydrate. However, ‘Reduced’ means the ingredient is at least 25% less than it was in the original version. So reduced does not necessarily mean it is in a small amount.
Keep these tips in mind when out doing your next grocery shop, and you’ll start to see some small changes in your health.
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Key TJ et al. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of cancer. Public Health Nutrition2004;7:187-200. DOI: 10.1079/PHN2003588.
McMillan DC et al. Obesity and cancer. Br Med J 2006;333:1109-11