The right way to read food labels

All Woman

IN order to be in full control of what you consume, it is important that you understand how to read food labels. Most packaged items have the nutrition facts listed on the back; however, for many of us it is just a lot of words and numbers we know have meaning but have no clue how to interpret.

When attempting to read the nutrition label, Kirk Bolton, standards and regulations committee chairperson at the Jamaica Association of Professionals in Nutrition and Dietetics (JAPINAD), said the aim of the nutrition fact panel is to provide information that would allow for the consumer to make informed decisions about their food choices and amounts consumed.

In reading the labels you should:

1. Start at the serving size

Bolton said the serving size on the food package influences the amount of energy, measured in calories, and all the nutrients listed on the top part of the label/panel. While the servings are standardised, the portions are not, and as a result you may find yourself having several numbers of servings in one package.

He said it is important to pay close attention to the serving size, especially the number of servings available in the food package. By being mindful of this you would be able to know how much of the nutrients and energy you are taking in.

“So you would be able to estimate whether you are taking in half of a serving or one or more servings. If, for example, a product like crackers indicate that it contains five servings, and every serving of the crackers is equivalent to three crackers and you decide to have the whole pack of crackers, in essence you would have consumed 15 crackers which is five servings,” he said.

2. Check the calories

The dietician explained that the calories, which you would see as kilocalories (Kcal) on the panel, are a measure of the amount of energy the product provides per serving. He explained that the energy is provided by either fat, carbohydrates or protein. Therefore, you do not take in calories but, instead, you take in the nutrients such as fat, carbohydrates or protein. The energy content of these are measured in calories or Kcals.

“If you have an item that indicates that it provides 250 Kcals per serving and you consume two servings, then in effect you would have consumed 500 Kcal. Note that it's very important that you are also aware of the amount of energy contributed by the fats,” Bolton said.

The general guide for fat intake is 40 calories — low; 100 calories — moderate; and 400 calories or more — high. These general guides are based on the 2,000 calories per day diet.

“The packaged items sometimes list calories to mean Kcals. This, we believe, is very misleading and JAPINAD is lobbying for manufacturers to have standardised information on their labels. This is important because the nutrition fact panel is used as a means of educating the consumer, and such confusion may defeat the whole purpose of the panel,” Bolton said.

3. Limit certain nutrients

The nutrition fact panel then seeks to provide information about some main or key nutrients that impact health. You should pay attention to two main groups — one which recommends that the nutrients in question be limited, and the other which encourages the consumer to get an increased amount.

“The first group which requires great regulation is the group listed with the total fat, cholesterol and sodium. All these nutrients have been shown to cause an increase in the risk for chronic illnesses such as heart diseases, some cancers, or high blood pressure and obesity. As such, it is recommended that you reduce or control how much of these you consume. We as dieticians and nutrition professionals strongly recommend that the intake of saturated fat, trans-fat and cholesterol be kept as low as possible to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet,” Bolton said.

4. Get enough of other nutrients

“Most persons do not get enough dietary fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in their diets. It is therefore recommended that efforts be made by the consumer to try and get more of these nutrients. It is proven that increased intake of these nutrients will improve one's health and help to reduce the risk for many diseases and conditions,” Bolton said.

He further explained that calcium reduces the risk for osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages, and diets high in dietary fibre promote healthy bowel function. He added that the nutrition facts label is not just used to limit one's intake, but to also increase those nutrients that are required in greater amounts.

5. Pay attention to the footnote

The bottom part of the nutrition facts label always carries the following statement, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet”. But what does this mean to you? Bolton said it means that the information provided applies to the per cent daily value (%DV) of a diet where the energy value is 2,000 Kcal. The DV is the recommended amount of the particular nutrient and the percentage daily value (%DV) is indicating how much of this amount is contributed in a serving of the product. He said it is useful to use the %DV as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.

Note that a few nutrients like trans-fat, protein and sugar do not have a %DV.

Bolton said it is important to speak to a nutrition professional, your dietitian or nutritionist as they are the experts in the science of nutrition and dietetics and, therefore, are qualified to advise you on how to eat properly and teach you how to use your foods to meet your health objectives.

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