Throughout the course of a day, we make approximately 200 decisions about food. 200! Should we eat bread A or bread B? Should I even eat bread?? Do I feel like chicken or steak? Should I eat the cookies at our staff meeting? Do I buy the low fat or low calorie dressing? Am I really hungry right now, or just bored? The decisions we make are endless, important, and we might not even be aware of all of them.
Nutrition can be confusing when it comes to choosing healthier options. In Canada, packaged foods are mandated to have both a Nutrition Facts Table and an Ingredients List displayed (there are some products exempt from this rule). These two items can be a huge help when making some of your decisions.
The Nutrition Facts Table lists a lot of important information including the serving size, calorie content, and the amount of 13 core nutrients. However, if you don’t know how to use it, it can just look like a spreadsheet nightmare. Learning how to read and use this information can go a long way in your decision making. While we’ve all seen a NF Table, you might not have seen it broken apart like this:
- Serving size – all the information provided below is based on this amount of the food. If you’re going to eat more or less than this size, you need to calculate the values (e.g., if you have two slices of this product, double the quantities).
- Calories – for many people this is the more important info on the table, but it only explains a very small portion of the nutrient story. Remember, this is based on the serving size!
- % Daily Value – is a quick overview of the quantity of nutrients in the food and is based on the highest recommended values a person should consume each day. The FDA established these values based on a 2,000 calorie diet for healthy adults. The quick tip for %DV is that anything less than 5% is LOW and anything above 20% is HIGH in that nutrient. Note that there are no DV values established for protein and sugar.
- Limit these nutrients – you want to aim for LOW %DV values in fat, saturated and trans fat, and sodium.
- Get enough of these nutrients – you want to aim for HIGH %DV values in fibre, vitamin A, calcium, and iron.
The Ingredient List is a list of everything inside that food product. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so what you read at the very top is most present with the quantities getting smaller as you work your way down the list. For example, on the list below, Whole Oats are the largest quantity, working down to a smaller amount of Nonfat Milk at the bottom of the list. As you read the list, watch for ingredients with names you can’t pronounce, and remember – in general, the shorter this list, the better!
Using these two tools when you do your weekly grocery shopping will help you make the healthiest food decisions. Remember these key points:
- Check the serving size and calculate what you will actually eat in one sitting to determine how healthy the product is
- 5% DV is a little, 20% DV is a lot of a nutrient
- Beware of ingredient lists with a lot of names which you can’t pronounce – these are chemicals!