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What's in a food label? Decoding the myths.

Oh, a trip to the grocery store can be a daunting task. Sometimes we go on an empty stomach and then are drawn into the snack isle. With grocery cart in hand we pass by products that are low fat, gluten free, low glycemic - the list goes on and on.

Diet Orange

We can be consumed by product labels and nutrition facts. This can be very confusing for even the most astute shopper. Remember if a product is labelled low on something it is usually high in something else like sugar or fat.

Most people look at the number of calories first especially if they are watching their caloric intake of food. This does seem reasonable, I agree, but I think it is more important to see what those calories are comprised of. If calories are really your thing, then here is how you can calculate the calories on a specific macronutrient [ie. carbohydrates, proteins and fats], based on the grams given on a label. For carbohydrates or protein multiply the grams by 4, multiply fats by 9 and alcohol by 7.

Example: 12g of fat on a label equals 108 calories of fat (12g x 9 = 108)

One of the first things I look for on a label are the ingredients. The ingredients in the product are listed from the greatest amount to the smallest amount. If the first thing listed is some form of sugar such as high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, artificial sugar etc., this product should not see the inside of the grocery cart as it is a synthetic sugar. In addition, you do not really need a food with sugar in any form being the main ingredient.

Can you pronounce the names of all the ingredients on the list?

What does our body REALLY do with these chemicals or genetically modified ingredients? They are not considered a food in my mind. The fewer ingredients listed the better!

If you see white flour, bleached white flour and enriched flour these are considered refined carbohydrates. They can raise your blood sugar level and increase your triglycerides, possibly increasing your risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack and obesity.

Instead opt for whole wheat or whole grain. If you are gluten intolerant remember the acronym BROWS which stands for barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt - stay away from any form of these ingredients.

Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil are trans fats and are just not good for you and can possibly increase your chance for diseases. These are found in many packages of crackers, cookies, cakes, etc.

Now, lets take a look at a label for macaroni and cheese so you can get an idea of what is contained in a label.

  • Serving Size: The label is giving you the status, usually on a portion of the product not the whole thing. In this case it is 1 cup. If you ate the whole box of this macaroni and cheese then you would need to double the calories and all the other grams or percentages.

  • Calories: The amount of calories in one serving. The calories you consume from fat should not be more than 20-30% of your total fat consumption per day.

  • Total Fat: Keep your total saturated fats per day under 20 grams

  • Cholesterol: Aim to eat less than 200 mg per day to lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Sodium: Limit your consumption to less than 2300 mg per day (equivalent to 1 tsp.)

  • Total Carbohydrates: Try to keep your sugar intake under 32 grams or 6% of your total calories per day.

  • Fibre: Aim for at least 25 grams per day

  • Protein: Your goal in a day should be @.80 grams per pound of body weight depending on your activity level

  • Vitamins and Minerals: Ideally, you should try to get 100% of the RDA for each vitamin listed. The best source is always whole foods such as vegetables and fruit.

  • Percent Daily Value: The numbers listed on the nutrition label show the percentages of the total daily values based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

At the end of the day when you are hungry and feel like you are walking aimlessly through a grocery store, staring at all the products in a daze, take heart. Do most of your shopping along the perimeter of the store where you get the whole foods, from fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy. With most of your cart hopefully full, then you can travel down the isles for boxes looking for ingredients you can pronounce.

Try not to pick up anything that is genetically modified including such things as soy or corn products that do not have the word organic in front of them. Good examples of whole foods in the aisle would be dry beans, lentils, rice (preferably brown rice for increased fibre) and remember the 25-30 gram per day goal?

I would like to leave you with one final thought: Is what you are eating REALLY FOOD?

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Marce Spence is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer. She is also the owner of Marce In Motion and helps people create momentum toward a healthier lifestyle. (905) 466-8989.

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