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Column: Navigating nutrition labels

By: Ashley Hurley – It's Alimentary

 | Aug 07, 2014 - 11:58 AM |
In 2007, nutrition labelling became mandatory for all prepackaged foods. Many Canadians find the information found on food labels to be helpful in making better food choices, but many feel there is room for improvement.

In 2007, nutrition labelling became mandatory for all prepackaged foods. Many Canadians find the information found on food labels to be helpful in making better food choices, but many feel there is room for improvement.

As a registered dietitian, clients often ask me for a list of the foods they can eat and the foods they can’t.

Unfortunately, such a list doesn’t exist so I draw their attention to reading food labels. Without taking a look at the label, you simply cannot make an informed judgement about the nutritional value of a packaged food. To the dismay of anyone that grocery shops with me, I rarely make a purchase without glancing at the label and comparing a few different versions of a product.

In 2007, nutrition labelling became mandatory for all prepackaged foods. Many Canadians find the information found on food labels to be helpful in making better food choices, but many feel there is room for improvement.

After a few months of consultation, Health Canada has proposed some changes. In general, these are aimed at the look of the Nutrition Facts table and list of ingredients, better presentation of the sugar content for easier understanding and new serving size guidelines.

The proposed changes to the look of the Nutrition Facts table include listing nutrients we may want less of, like fat, sodium, and sugar, in the upper part of the table, and listing nutrients we may want more of, like fiber and protein, in the lower part.

They are also proposing a message at the bottom as a reminder that when talking percentage of daily values, five per cent or less is a little, while 15 per cent or more is a lot.

Health Canada also wants to group sugar-based ingredients (like fructose, molasses, honey, and corn syrup) together on the label to better reflect the amount of sugar-based ingredients in a product. Currently, ingredients are listed from most to least, so sugar-based items don't appear together. This can deceive consumers into thinking a product doesn't contain much sugar, when in fact it does, but in different forms.

With regard to better understanding the sugar content of foods, proposed changes include declaring the amount of added sugars, useful when comparing cereals, for example. In terms of calories, sugar is sugar, but, in terms of nutritional value, dried fruit will contain sugar, but provides other important nutrients that, say, high-fructose corn syrup doesn't.

Declaring the amount of added sugar will help consumers choose foods with fewer of these ‘extra’ ingredients.

New serving size guidelines aim to make it easier to compare foods by making serving sizes more consistent. For most foods that can be measured, the servings sizes will be based on a reference amount, as in one serving equals 15 crackers.

For other foods though, serving size will be based on the amount typically consumed. Bread, for example, will having a serving size of two slices, since people typically eat two slices of bread at a time.

This will make label reading more practical for consumers. And while the proposed changes are a step in the right direction, there were other suggestions made during the consultation process that don’t appear to have made the cut.

Adding the total servings contained in the package would provide more information to consumers and might make it easier to decide whether to eat the whole bag of cookies (joking, please don't do that).

Others have suggested a standardized system to rate the overall nutritional quality such as a traffic light or scoring system.

It’s not too late to provide feedback and I would encourage you to do so. Consultations are open until Sept. 11 at surveys-sondages.hc-sc.gc.ca/s/labelling-etiquetage2/?l=en.

I know I will be.

Ashley Hurley is a registered dietitian in Greater Sudbury.

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