Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Easy Way to Read a Food Label

I scratch my head when I look at food labels. I can't imagine that the average consumer cares to know all of the information provided and can't help but wonder whether or not having so much information may simply cause the consumer to avoid using it.

Take for example Canadian Member of Parliament Rick Dykstra. In discussing the unfortunately defeated Bill C-283 he commented on his use of food labels,

"The frustrating part for me is that I don't know what three-quarters of the things are that are actually on the label itself, and then I need to get a magnifying glass to read what I don't know."
Rick's definitely not alone in his confusion, so for all of the Ricks out there, here is the quick, down-and-dirty, 4 step Nutrition Facts label reading program.

Step #1: Look at the Serving Size. Until Health Canada mandates more useful and toothful labeling laws, serving sizes are pretty arbitrary. Sometimes you'll see things like 1/2 a cookie serving sizes or 1/4 of a bag of microwave popcorn. Multiply everything on the label by the number of "servings" you personally imagine consuming.

Step #2: Look at the Calories. If you're watching your weight or concerned therein, less is more when it comes to Calories.

Step #3: Look at the fats. If you can avoid buying foods with trans-fats, do so. When it comes to saturated fats, less is more but don't sweat them too much. When it comes to unsaturated fats, don't worry about them at all and in fact, more is more.

Step #4: Look at the sugar. 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon (so you can quickly divide and see how many teaspoons of sugar you're getting). Less is more.

Seem too easy? Want some advanced techniques?

Advanced Step #1: Look at the fibre content. More is more.

Advanced Step #2: Look at the sodium content. Less is more.

Advanced Step #3: Look at the ingredients list. If sugar is listed as one of the top three ingredients, try and find an alternative.

Don't worry about the percentage daily values stuff, don't worry about the micronutrients (the various vitamins and minerals), and don't worry if you don't know for instance how much sodium is too much. The more frequently you look at the labels, the more of a grounding you'll get in what's out there and the more you'll know what's a lot and what's a little.

With regards to micronutrients and the percent daily values stuff, I recommend a multivitamin, and the cheap ones by the way work fine.

Consider a multivitamin nutritional insurance, not a license to eat poorly. Just because I have car and home insurance doesn't mean I don't buckle my seatbelt, drive safely and lock my house when I leave.

If you're concerned about your health, not reading food labels before you eat something is comparable to being concerned about your finances but not looking at price tags when you go shopping - a bad idea.