It’s Not Easy to Read Food Labels

Life has never been as much of a balancing act as it is today and although we all have good intentions, consistency in healthy eating habits can easily be lost in the hustle of day to day life. As a mother of two young boys, I am constantly trying to make the best decisions I can for my family. I try to buy healthful, baby friendly, eco friendly products as often as possible, however, I am often skeptical of misleading labels and marketing messages that appear to be to good to be true. Even though I have been working as a food label specialist for the past ten years, I often feel vulnerable when shopping for common household products such as bath soaps, baby bottles, baby toys, sippy cups, and suntan lotions. I can only imagine how vulnerable others may feel when shopping for prepackaged processed foods.

The easiest way to avoid being misled when grocery shopping is to only buy natural, whole foods that do not have labels. Unfortunately, this is hardly a realistic suggestion and therefore the next best thing is to empower yourself with the information you need to make more healthful and informed choices for your family.

I can confidently say that it is not easy to read and understand food labels. Food companies have become experts at developing products that are marketed as being more healthful than they really are, and without the proper tools consumers can easily fall victim to misleading information.

Given the recent media attention concerning proposed Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) changes to food labelling initiatives announced in the 2012 federal budget, I felt it was timely to share five tips for healthful informed label reading. Perhaps these tips will help empower you the next time you are pushing your little ones up those ominous grocery aisles just trying to get in and out and do the best that you can for your family.

1. Consider all elements of a food label.

  • Try not to be lured by the health claims displayed on the front of packages that may or may not be meaningful. Just because a product claims to have one desirable attribute does not necessarily mean that it is healthful. A product claiming to contain whole grains may not contain as much fibre as you think, products claiming to contain no added sugar may still contain a substantial amount of sugar, products claiming to contain superior ingredients may actually contain as little 2% or less of the highlighted ingredients, and products claiming to be fat-free may contain a handful of additives you are trying to avoid.

2. Always read the list of ingredients to gain a clear understanding of the composition of the product.

  • Try to look beyond the first few ingredients and consider the ingredients closer to the end of the list that are often additives. Learn how to recognize when ingredients may be hidden in ingredient lists or when they may have been manipulated to mislead you into believing a product is more healthful than reality. Ingredients such as artificial colours, which have been reported in studies as having a potential link to allergic reactions and hyperactivity in children, are commonly hidden on food labels. Preservatives, artificial flavours, flavour enhancers, hydrogenated oils, and other ingredients of potential concern may also be hidden, and sweetening ingredients may be declared by names that are not commonly recognized.

3. Always read the nutrition facts table to gain a clear understanding of the nutritional composition of the product.

  • If you tend to only focus on the amount of calories and fat declared on nutrition facts tables try considering some of the other nutrients such as sodium, sugars, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Always remember to reference the serving size, especially when comparing products, and adjust the numbers on the nutrition facts table based on how many servings you intend to consume. Also, keep in mind that the per cent daily values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, therefore, if your calorie needs are lower or higher the numbers on the nutrition facts table will have to be adjusted. What does this all mean? It may be a good idea to bring a calculator along with you.

4. Bring along a food additive dictionary or download a food additive app.

  • If you aren’t sure about the potential health effects of some ingredients such as additives, consider buying a food additive dictionary, or purchasing a food additive app (key word search “food additives”). Look up the potential health effects of the ingredients declared on the labels you are reading and decide if you should put those foods in your cart or leave them on the shelf.

5. Don’t compromise the healthfulness of your foods based on sale prices or promotions; Stick to your beliefs!

  • If a product does not disclose the information that you need to feel comfortable or does not meet your personal criteria for healthful leave it on the shelf and a find another product that does. I like to order a weekly organic produce bin that is delivered to my home. It keeps me from buying the sometimes significantly more affordable conventionally grown produce, and saves me from having to push a double stroller and grocery cart around the store (which is not easy to do!)

Join me next Thursday, April 19th for an interactive, discussion-based presentation for Life With a Baby members, in Richmond Hill. I will be expanding on many of the points above and will be providing examples of misleading labels to help you become a savvy shopper.

About the Author:

Allison Jorgens is the author of the book Read It with a Grain of Salt – The Truth about Canadian Food Labels from an Industry Insider. She is a home economist holding a degree in nutritional sciences, and has been working as a food label specialist for grocers and food manufactures in Canada for nearly a decade. Over the past ten years, Allison has reviewed thousands of food labels for many of Canada’s leading private-label grocery brands, large and small manufacturers, distributors, and a variety of importers. It is this wide-ranging experience in regulatory-compliance label reviews that makes her knowledge unique—and her perspective all the more shocking. As a concerned parent and advocate of leading a healthful lifestyle, Allison recommends that all responsible consumers empower themselves with the knowledge needed to make more healthful and informed choices.


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