Food labels don’t tell the whole nutrition story, experts say

May 23, 2013 - All News

Special to SAF
The labels are calling you; the packages on the grocery store shelves shouting “low in fat!” and “no sugar added!”
But experts say that these can often be deceptive.
“If a product has to try to convince you that it’s good for you, it’s probably not,” says Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. “Broccoli doesn’t need a label.”
Health Canada has minimum nutritional standards for certain phrases, but even those may not tell the whole story. Here’s what you need to know about common health claims:
Low in fat
This label is often found on cookies, ice creams and other treats.
What you need to know: According to Health Canada, “low fat” means that there is no more than three grams of fat in the amount of food specified in the product’s nutrition facts table.
Keep in mind that fat, along with sugar and sodium, is what gives food flavour and texture. If the item is low in fat, it may be high in the other two.
“If it tastes good and it’s called low-fat, you are in trouble,” says Dr Joseph Colella, a weight loss surgeon and author. “The reality is that to make it palatable, they dump tons of sugar in it.”
What to do: Turn the box around and check the nutrition panel for how many grams of sugar and sodium are in the product. If comparing products, be sure to check the portion size as you see how the calories stack up.
No sugar added
Commonly found on juice boxes or fruit beverages.
What you need to know: The label typically refers to refined or processed sugar, not natural sugar.
“It just means no sugar added to a whole heck of a lot that’s already in there. But it really looks appealing when you see it that way,” Colella says. There may be no sugar added, but different flavours of juice concentrate may be used to make the beverage sweeter. That’s why a mango juice, for instance, may also contain pear purée.
What to do: Many nutritionists give fruit juice a big thumbs down, particularly when it comes to a child’s diet.
Rosie Schwartz is among those who advises: “Don’t drink your calories.” Instead, drink water when you’re thirsty and go for the whole fruit. That will give you the fibre, as well as antioxidants that help fight diseases.
Low in sodium or salt
This label appears on some canned soups and crackers.
What you need to know: According to Health Canada, this label is permitted if the food contains less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving size. Keep in mind that this is not the same as sodium-free, which is defined as less than five milligrams of sodium. It’s also different from sodium-reduced, which may mean it has as much as one-quarter less sodium than the original food item. Confused yet? Other labels may say “No added sodium or salt” or “Lightly salted.”
The fix: Check the portion sizes as you compare how much sodium is in what you’re buying. The easiest way to reduce the sodium in your diet is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and steer clear of prepackaged processed foods and restaurant meals. Health Canada recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for most adults, and less for children and teens.
Contains Omega-3s: This label appears on eggs, orange juice and some margarine.
What you need to know: Omega-3s are said to be good for your heart and even improve brain functioning. The best sources are thought to be flax seed and fish, but you may be paying a premium for a product that uses lower quality flax oil.
“The consumer would never know. All they see is ‘omega-3s are beneficial for health’,” says Theresa Albert, a nutritionist and author.
Quantity is also important. Health Canada recommends about 3.5 grams of Omega-3s per day. But an egg with added omega-3 would only contain about 0.4 grams. That means you would literally need to eat eight eggs to get the daily recommended intake.
The same goes for margarine, which has about 0.3 grams of Omega per teaspoon. To get your day’s intake, you would need about half a cup of margarine, says nutritionist and author Rose Reisman.
“People see it and they get excited by it, but what does it mean? They start having more because they think it’s good for them, not considering the fat and the calories.”
What to do: If you want the health benefits, get the omega-3s by eating a serving of cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring or trout, a couple of times a week. Vegetarian sources include walnuts, flax and dark, leafy greens.
Made with whole grains
You’ll find this label, along with its cousin “multi-grain” on breads, crackers, chips and cereals.
What you need to know: This product may contain a few whole grains along with a whole lot of refined white flour and sugar, particularly when it comes to kids’ cereals.
“They may put a smattering of whole grain in there but if the first ingredient is sugar, then it’s not going to provide the same benefits as one where the first ingredient is whole grain,” says Schwartz. “It’s sort of meant to have parents feel better, but how much of that is really whole grain and how much sugar are you adding to your kids’ diets?”
What to do: Look for whole-grain flour on the list of ingredients or, better yet, eat more brown rice, oats, quinoa and whole-wheat pasta. Health Canada recommends making at least half of your grain products whole grain each day. If you do make the switch to real whole grains, here’s a note of caution: You may not like the taste at first, and you may be tempted to dress them up to make them more palatable.
“It’s just a little this and that on your oatmeal and before you know it, it’s a 600-calorie breakfast,” Colella says. “You put butter and tons of grape jelly on your whole-grain toast. That’s what happens in the real world.”
Light or lite
You may find this on margarines and olive oil.
What it really means: According to Health Canada, “light” is allowed only on foods that are either reduced fat or reduced calories. But the word light can also be used to describe “sensory characteristics” of food such as light-tasting or light-coloured. Light olive oils tend to be more processed and don’t have the beneficial compounds in extra virgin olive oil.
“It may have been mixed with other oils to make it visually lighter in colour,” Reisman says. “That has nothing to do with fat.”
The fix: Check the nutrition panel and compare the amount of fat to other brands. If you’re looking for the health benefits of olive oil, stick to darker green extra virgin olive oil that hasn’t been processed. If you’re worried about the fat, watch your portion size.
— Torstar News Service