Misleading food labels: had enough?!


As a health sciences university student, it is easy to understand the reasons why foods high in sodium, fat and sugar increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fat, and sugar, which is stored as fat when not used, can lead to weight gain. Sodium causes kidneys to excrete less fluid resulting in high blood pressure. All these factors put strain on the heart as it pumps blood throughout the body, and increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. However, when it comes to making the right food selection at the supermarket, it is difficult to make the healthiest one . Foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, lean meats and poultry are generally known to be very healthy if consumed in reasonable amounts. However, when foods have gone through a high amount of processing (which in Canada they do) with added sugar, salt and fat, then the food becomes less healthy, and it is more difficult to know if the product is healthy. Companies sometimes label their foods as fat-free, no sugar added, good source of fiber etc. As I have realized from reading the nutrition claims, the foods with these labels are not necessarily healthy.

Claims stated on the front of a product can be misleading. A US study assessing front-of-package claims found that certain phrases are used to mask products that are high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats and sugar. For example, products that are high in saturated fats can have labels such as “made with real…”, and a “good source of protein”. These products are marketed to consumers as a ‘healthy’ food choice. Also noted are companies claiming a product being low in sodium, sugar, fat etc. These statements are not government regulated, and are instead controlled by the company based their own standards as to what the threshold amount if for a product to be “low”. Eating unhealthy food is common in Canada. In fact, a World Health Organization study found that an unhealthy diet is the leading risk for death in Canada. In order to help Canadians in making healthy food choices, despite the marketing schemes by the companies, nutrition facts tables are put on packaged foods.

So how does one decipher between a healthy choice and an unhealthy choice with all these misleading claims?

Nutrition facts tables are required by the government to be put on prepackaged foods and contains the ‘necessary’ information needed by the consumers to make healthy decisions . The problem with these labels is that they are not intuitive, and most of the time, the labels are not read properly. Many times I catch myself interpreting the information wrong and almost buying an unhealthy product. Nutrition facts tables may require consumers to do complicated math to determine the total amount of nutrients in the container and do not indicate if a food is healthy or not.

Looking at the example of sodium, despite having the upper limit of sodium being 2300 mg daily, the daily value on the nutrition table in Canada is based on 2400 mg. This is above the upper limit and misleading Canadians into believing they are eating within the recommended limits. With so many factors that cause people to misunderstand the food they are consuming, it would seem the old label needs to be replaced with a more standardized and intuitive food label to help consumers make the right food choices. Places such as the UK have already implemented new food labels in the form of traffic lights to help consumer to easily identify healthy and non-healthy food choices.

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Reading the Nutrition Table


Serving Size: This is the reference size of the food product in which the information on the nutrition table is given. Many people misread this part of the table. For this nutrition table, it only offers the nutrition facts for 15 chips or 28g. One bag of chips is about 12 times that serving. if a person were to read the nutrition facts, the chips would seem rather “healthy”, however upon further assessment one whole bag is about 72 g of fat.

Calories: Calories is our energy measurement. It indicates the total amount of calories in the reference serving size. Typically an adult female should take in 1800 calories day and an adult male 2200 calories a day unless a person gets daily exercise. Amount of calories one should take in fluctuates depending on activity level, age, and height. Most people eat too many calories. The whole bag contains 1680 calories, that is 93% of the recommended calorie intake for a typical female and 75% of a typical male.

Total fat : This contains both saturated fats, trans fats and unsaturated fats (good fats). The section is further broken up to give the amount of saturated and trans fats (fats that needs to be reduced). The whole bag contains 12 g of saturated fats but no trans fats.

Sodium: This is the amount of sodium in the product. People should eat less than the maximum f 2300 mg of sodium per day, however, it is noted that the daily value in Canada and the United States is based on 2400 mg of sodium.

Potassium: The daily recommended potassium is 4700mg. Like sodium, it is used by our bodies. Most people eat too little potassium which can cause hypertension and stroke.

Carbohydrates: In the above table it is further split into dietary fiber and sugars. Sugars contain both the sugar added and naturally occurring and pack on calories in the foods we eat. Sugars are also called empty calories as they have no health benefits but contribute calories which can cause obesity. Dietary fiber is usually found in plants and is known to have positive health effects.

Protein: This is required by our bodies to rebuild damaged tissue and muscle. Protein is required by our bodies to obtain the 8 essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce.

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