Eating Healthier by Reading Food Labels Carefully

April 22, 2010

Eating a nutritious and balanced diet is a vital component in aging well. Being conscious of what you eat is made easier by laws regulating that food products sold in Canada and the US must have their ingredients listed and include detailed nutrition information.

Carefully comparing food labels of various products can make it easier to pick the best foods for you.

What to Look for on Food Labels

Comparing nutrition labels

Ingredients List

The first item that is listed on the ingredients list is the most plentiful ingredient in that product. Generally products with short ingredients lists are best and avoid preservatives and other chemicals. If a product contains ingredients you can’t pronounce it likely isn’t the healthiest thing to eat.

There can be a wide variety of ingredients between the same products. For example some plain yoghurts contains only milk, milk powder and active bacterial cultures while other yoghurts list sugar as one of the most plentiful ingredients.

Portion Size

When looking at the nutrition labels pay close attention to the portion size. You may see a healthy amount of calories per serving but not realize that you usually eat twice the portion size. For example, cereals commonly list the serving size as 1 cup of cereal, or a serving of chips as 22 chips, while many of us eat more than that.

Percentage of Daily Needs

The percentage of daily needs is based on someone eating a daily 2000 calorie diet. The recommended daily amount of calories for seniors varies according to their level of activity. You can use this calculator to determine  a rough estimate of how many calories you should be eating on a regular basis.

If you are a female and don’t have a particularly active lifestyle you should be eating less 2000 calories. For seniors, the average daily intake was 1,950 calories for men and 1,550 calories for women. So a meal that is listed as providing 30% of your daily carbohydrate needs may actually be much higher.

If you’re a senior male athlete you are probably eating more than 2000 calories a day which means a cereal that promises to give you 50% of your daily fiber is actually providing you with less than 50% of your daily recommended fiber intake.

To calculate your personal percentage of daily needs divide 2000 by the number of calories you are eating. A person eating 1500 calories a day would calculate 2000/1500=1.33.

Then multiply the percentage of daily needs by that number. For a person eating 1500 calories a day something that is listed as providing 20% of your daily needs is actually meeting 26.6% (20% x 1.33) of your needs

Most people do not carefully track their percentages of daily needs but the percentage of daily needs is on the labels to let you easily compare similar products and choose items with less fat and more important ingredients like fiber.

Health Claims

Many products have big labels proclaiming them as low fat or no sugar. You shouldn’t automatically choose these items though. Something with low fat typically has to add sugar or other ingredients in order to maintain taste. Look at the ingredient list carefully and compare products to find the healthiest product.

For products labeled as whole-grains you should see whole grains as one of the first ingredients listed. Enriched wheat flour is not the same thing. Sometimes when you look closer at the packaging you’ll see it says “made with whole grains” which doesn’t deliver the same health benefits of products made mainly with whole grain products.

Other products labelled as a good source of fiber or iron may be in high in these particular nutrients but also be high in salt or trans fats. It’s not enough to read the advertised health claims, you need to look at the entire ingredients lists.

Choosing healthy foods

Foods with No Food Labels

The easiest way to pick healthy foods is to eat those that don’t require an ingredients list. All fresh fruits and vegetables fall into this category. For all other foods take a close look at the ingredients and nutritional information before eating it.

What are some of your favorite healthy foods? Have you ever been surprised by the nutritional content of something you thought was good for you?

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