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Careful With Those Food Labels

Did you purchase your brand of bread because the package said “Cholesterol Free” or low sugar?  What about the brand of macaroni or ketchup you selected?  There is no advantage in doing this since these items are not sources of cholesterol anyway. These are all plant based products and only products containing foods from animals will have cholesterol. In fact, such a claim ought only to be made if cholesterol had been removed from the product. Likewise, low or reduced sugar bread may be higher in calories than regular bread.

Manufacturers will make nutritional claims to lure you to purchase because they know of the consumer concern for intake of cholesterol, fat, sodium, sugar and calories.  To make an informed choice about any product, you should understand the meanings of the various food claims and the “Nutrition Facts” label.  There are standard interpretations prescribed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the USA.

Calorie Claims and Healthy Foods

A common error is in interpreting calorie claims. The term “reduced calorie” means that the product has one-third to one-half (1/3 to ½) less calories than the normal product while “low calorie” means that the product has less than forty (40) calories per serving.  For example, regular margarine has 100 calories per tablespoon serving.  The reduced calorie product has 50 calories and the low-calorie margarine has 35 calories for the same serving size. The “calorie free” claim means that the margarine would have only 5 calories per tablespoon. The term healthy food has nothing to do with calories and weight loss or gain. 

The FDA definition of healthy food is any food that in addition to calories has at least 10 percent of at least one nutrient.  Most of our juices have 100% of vitamin C added, which means that they are all ‘healthy food’. You should be sure to check on the quantity of food that makes up a serving and not assume that this refers to the whole content of the package.  For example, a package containing 14-15 servings of margarine would have a total of 1400-1500 calories. According to how manufacturers state the serving size, the calorie value may not appear too high.  This does not help the consumer in knowing how much they should eat for good health.

Salt, Sugar and Fat Claims

The term “light” can refer to fat or salt in a reduced calorie product or just to calories alone.   This means that either one-half the fat or one-half the sodium (salt) of the regular product is present.  “No salt added” could really mean “low sodium” providing 140 mg per serving or “very low sodium” containing 35 mg per serving but “sodium free” means less than 5 mg per serving.  With respect to beer, this means one-half the calories of regular beer but for sugar this could mean that the product’s texture and colour is “light” brown. 

“No sugar added” is not the same as sugar free.  Sugar as sucrose may not be added but either natural sugar could be present or the sweetening agent could be another form of sugar such as dextrose, honey, corn syrup, molasses or sugar alcohol.  All of these provide the same 60 calories per tablespoon as table sugar.    

Interpreting fat content from food labels can be tricky.  You may know that the general recommendation is that we should limit our intake of fat to less than 30% of total calories daily.  Fat labels give a value for total fat and then express this as percent (%) Daily Value (DV).   But DV refers to a 2000 calorie diet and does not indicate the actual fat content of the product.  For example, a product may provide 15% of the DV which appears well within the recommended limit and yet be 60% in fat content.  The only way to know this is to calculate the calories from fat and do the arithmetic to get the fat calories for the product. 

Front of package labeling may assist you in seeing certain values better but this may still seem very complex to interpret. Speak with your qualified nutrition practitioner who will help make all this become easier.

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