We have more choice than ever in what kinds of foods we have available to eat. Every one of those choices represents a company who has an interest in you spending your money on their product. People will always have to spend a portion of their money on food because it is a necessity of life. Unless you hop off grid or build a homestead or farm and grow your own food, you are a prospect being enticed by every food company, grocery store and restaurant hoping to carve out and keep a place for themselves in the market. The highly competitive nature of this industry, every company trying to secure as much of the money spent on food as possible, leaves you at the mercy of advertising and package labels to make your buying decisions. If you are aiming to keep yourself and your family healthy and not just fed, then advertising campaigns and companies' efforts to convince you their products are best make your role in the decision making process harder. It is necessary to be savvy - an educated consumer who does their own research and is armed with knowledge - to navigate the market and make good healthy food choices. Just remember, when in doubt, you can't go wrong with whole, real foods like whole grains, meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds.
Nutrition facts and government regulation
Food products have a nutrition facts label on the packaging to provide information that is supposed to help us make better, healthier food choices. This information is government regulated. It is mandatory in Canada that the nutrition facts tables on food labels list the amounts of 13 specific things: calories, fats (saturated and trans), carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, protein, cholesterol, sodium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron. All other nutrient amounts are optional for the manufacturers to provide. The use of certain words, and health claims that can be made about a food, are also regulated. Things like 'low in fat' and 'no cholesterol' can be used only if the amount of fat or cholesterol in the serving of the food matches the regulations set out by the government. For example, claiming a food is a 'very high' source of fibre requires that your serving provide 4g or more of fibre, as opposed to only being a source of fibre if it supplies 2g. But, does this information really give us enough relevant or useful information to help us make better choices? As long as a product is low in fat or low in sugar, does that make it a good product?
Limitations of nutrition facts and food claims
Nutrition facts and food claims don't teach you how to make sense of interpreting what the facts about foods mean for your health. While food claims and labels have to be factually true, the interpretation of what those facts mean for health can be a little blurry. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation because we are encouraged to associate certain 'buzz' words with healthier or good. Advertising takes as much advantage of that as possible to set products up in our minds as wholesome, good or healthy. You could assume that a food is better for your health than it is because of the presence of 'buzz' words like 'omega 3' or 'probiotics' or 'gluten-free' that imply that the food is healthy by associating them with those 'buzz' words. Nutrition facts should always be read alongside the ingredients list in order to determine the quality and 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' status of foods. What something is made of is as important as how much of a nutrient is present.
Always read the suggested serving size on a package. You can easily overestimate or underestimate how nutritionally beneficial a food is if serving sizes are not read carefully. You may get far more sodium, sugar or fat in your diet by eating more of a food than what is suggested by the serving size. The food may also provide an insufficient amount of an ingredient that would make it helpful to health. For example, oat bran contains a type of soluble fibre that has been clinically shown to lower cholesterol. Oat bran is an ingredient in some breakfast cereals and snack bars. Advertising can suggest by association that their product lowers cholesterol because it is made with oat bran. However, to get the amount of oat bran necessary to reduce cholesterol as shown in clinical studies, you would have to eat three or four times more of the food than would be reasonable to assume you have to eat (such as three cups of cereal in some cases).
Zero Trans Fats
Trans fatty acids are a type of fat present in margarine, shortening and hydrogenated oils that have been found to contribute to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Snack foods, fast foods, bakery goods, chips and crackers are often sources of trans fats. Food packages like to claim that their products have 0g of trans fats. However, this claim can be made even if there is trans fats present in the product. As long as the serving size suggested on the nutrition facts label provides less than 0.2g (200mg) of trans fats the claim can be made that there are 0g of trans fats in the food because it is allowable to round down to zero. Once again serving size is important here since a serving is based on eating, say 12 chips, when in fact you eat 10 times as many of these chips in one sitting contributing to an unrecognized amount of this unhealthy fat to your diet. Processed and deep fried foods contain unhealthy fats.
Foods that should have fats, like dairy, yogurt and peanuts, have to be heavily processed in order to remove the fats that are naturally there. And, to make fat-free foods taste good salt and sugars are often added. These foods can be really high in sugar so check the grams of sugar per serving and read the ingredients list for possible hidden sugars. While we know that sugar, brown sugar, icing sugar, cane sugar and invert sugar are clearly sugars, some things aren't as obvious.
Anything ending in an 'ose' on a food label is also sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose, galactose, dextrose, lactose, levulose, maltose, etc). Some food additives are sugar in disguise, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin.
Cholesterol has long been associated with heart disease. Cholesterol is only found in animal products and does not come from plants at all. Labels will often say cholesterol-free as a reverse 'buzz' word to imply the product is healthier because of the lack of it in the food. Many of the products that claim to have no cholesterol use ingredients that supply trans fats. Fats that come from shortening, margarine, soybean oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, cotton seed oil, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, or a baked product that contains polyunsaturated oils will provide dangerous, bad or poor-quality fats. Cholesterol-free doesn't mean the product is good – read the ingredients list!
Be wary of foods that claim to be sugar-free, they can have artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium as well as more food additives and fats to improve their flavour and taste.
Adele Fawcett is a member of the International Organization of Nutritional Consultants and a Registered Orthomolecular Health Practitioner (ROHP).