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Preventive Maintenance: Read the label, you’d be surprised what you can learn

When you're out grocery shopping for your next run, take the time to read labels. You'd be surprised what you learn....




When you’re out grocery shopping for your next run, take the time to read labels. You’d be surprised what you learn.

And since the government regulates what can be printed, most labels are similar.

However if you’re buying something small, you won’t find out much from the wrapper. Stuff with less than 12 square inches of printing space will only have an address or phone number you can use to find out what’s in it. If the package is a bit bigger (less than 40 square inches) you’ll get more information, but not much. Since most junk food comes in smaller packages, their labels don’t let you know much about what you’re really eating. So choose wisely!

To find out what’s in grocery-type foods, read the package. There you’ll find the product name, as well as the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor.

You’ll also see some government-approved descriptive words, along with a measurement letting you know how much of the product you’re getting.

The label may say that the product’s good for your health. This claim must be approved by the government and cannot exaggerate the healthy effect the food could have.

Not surprisingly, these claims always contain the words “might” or “may.”

Obviously eating just one food will not make you healthy! Your body needs a balance of many nutrients.

However, science has shown a clear relationship between certain foods and certain health issues. When those relationships have been proven, companies are free to display that info on products containing those healthy ingredients.

Canada has all sorts of rules for the way nutrients can be described on labels. For example, if you see “High in Calcium” on a package, it means that one serving has at least 20 per cent of the calcium you need in a day. As well, that product can’t have more phosphorus than calcium.

The term “free” as in “fat-free” doesn’t really mean free at all. If a product is “fat-free,” it can still contain fat.

That term just means that the amount of fat in the product shouldn’t hurt your body. “Fat-free” can also be described as “without fat,” “no” fat, or “zero” fat. Any nutrient can be called “(something)-free” if there’s just a tiny amount in the product.

When you see “healthy” on a label it means that the food is low in these undesirable ingredients: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. “Healthy” products have 10 per cent of what you need in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein and fibre as well.

If you see a label stating the food is “a good source of,” just one serving gives you between 10 per cent and 19 per cent of what you need of that nutrient. “More,” “added,” and “extra” means you’ll get 10 per cent more of the nutrient than in the regular kind of that food. When the label reads “high in,” “rich in,” or “excellent source of” it means that one serving of that food has 20 per cent of the daily amount of that specific nutrient.

So far we’ve looked at terms used for more healthful ingredients. However, when foods have ingredients that aren’t as healthy, the terms change.

“Low,” means you can eat a lot of the food and still not get more than the daily requirement. Other words for this are “little,” “few” and “low source of…”

When you see “less,” you know they’re talking about ingredients you should try to avoid.

“Less,” “fewer,” and “reduced,” mean that the product has 25 per cent less of the unwanted ingredient compared to what is usually found in the same food.

Labels also let you know how many calories are in the food. “Calorie free” means each serving has less than five calories. “Low calorie” has less than 40 calories per serving.

While “light” means the food has 66 per cent of the calories of a regular type of the same food, “calorie reduced” foods have 75 per cent or less.

Labels also show the amounts of fat per serving. Fats on labels are divided into regular and saturated.

We’ve already looked at what “fat-free” really means – “low fat” has up to three grams of fat, while “less fat” means 25 per cent less than usual.

“Saturated fat-free” has less than 0.5 grams of both saturated and trans-fatty acids.

“Low saturated fat” has less than one gram.

“Less saturated fat” has 1/4 less than in the regular food.

“High fibre” has over five grams of fibre. And if the label talks about fibre it has to mention fat. “Sugar-free” has less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.

By now you know that reading labels proves something we all know – once the government gets involved, things get complicated. But reading labels is not a waste of time. They’ve got a lot of good information, once you know the code.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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