What Does Your Packaged Food Really Say

So you’re in the grocery store comparing two packages of cookies. One is the regular variety that you have bought for years, and the other is almost identical, however it’s labels “light” in large bright letters. The healthy choice between the two seems quite obvious. But how much value do these labels have?

The word “light” is tricky because in the food industry it can have several meanings. Health Canada permits the use of the term “light” for items that are 25% less calories than the product that they are being compared to. The tricky part is that “light” can also be used for items that are light in colour or taste as long as it is clearly indicated on the package.

You bought some “light” M&Ms and you are feeling good because you’re eating 25% less calories, but study after study has shown that when we eat foods that are light we actually eat more than the regular product. In cases like this, we eat on average 30% more than we would if we ate the normal product.

The other issue then becomes, what is being put in when the calories or fat are being taken out? Fat, sugar and salt are the major components of food that give flavour. Typically, when one ingredient is reduced another is increased or added. When fat is taken out, salt might be added, or other agents such as thickeners or artificial flavours.

The bottom line is, if the food is healthy, it probably doesn’t need a fancy label. A fancy claim on the front of the package usually has more to do with marketing than nutrition. Always look at the black-and white nutrition facts panel in the packaging. That label gives you a better idea of the nutritional content of the product.

Here are a few common claims made on packaging and what they mean

Low in Fat means that there is less than 3 grams of fat per serving of the product. Again fat, sodium and sugar are what give food its flavour. If you take one of these out it must be replaced with one of the others or a substitute to maintain the products flavour. The most common substitute is sugar. In order to find out for sure, turn the box around and check the sugar content in the nutrition panel. Be sure to glance at the portion size when comparing products.

Contain Omega-3s is a common label found on eggs especially. When looking at Omega-3 products you want to pay attention to quality and quantity. The best quality Omega-3s are found naturally in flax seed and fish. It is put into other products in order for them to attach that label. The quantity is just as important. Health Canada recommends 3.5g of Omega 3s per day, however an egg with added Omega-3 only contains 0.4 grams. People tend to get excited about the label and eat more because they think it’s good for them, however they don’t think about the fat and calories.

Made with whole grains is a popular term used in bread, chips, and cereals. The products may contain whole grains along with a lot of refined flour and sugar. Check the ingredients list. If the first ingredient is sugar, especially in children’s cereals, you probably aren’t getting the benefits that you thought. As an alternative, look for products that use whole grain flour or products such as brown rice, quinoa and whole wheat pasta

No sugar added is a common term used on juice boxes. It commonly refers to refined sugars and generally means that no refined sugar was added on top of the already present natural sugar. An easy way to see if this is true is to check the contents of fruit juice. If a fruit juice contains juice from more than one type of fruit, the second is most likely added for extra flavour and sweetness.

Light or Lite is found on many products and is permitted on products that are reduced in fat or calories. Be carefully because it can also mean products that are light tasting or coloured. For example, light olive oils tend to be processed and may have been mixed with other oils to make them appear lighter, however it does not change the fat content. Again, always check the nutrition panel and compare products.

Low in sodium appears on many processed canned products. It is permitted if the product contains less than 140mg of sodium. Be careful and know what you are looking for because there are many labels related to sodium such as lightly salted, no sodium added or sodium reduced. The easiest way to reduce sodium in your diet is to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and less packaged foods. And again, check the portion size when you compared sodium levels.

Here are a few other terms commonly found on packages and what they mean.