bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Grocery store lessons: a tale of two pasta sauces

Further to all of my discussion about sugar in food and nutrition labels I wanted to share with you the following nutrition facts label that has me stumped:

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Apologies for the poor photo quality. Hopefully you’re able to see that the nutrition facts panel indicates that there’s no sugar in this pasta sauce. That’s grand and all, no one wants a sugary tomato sauce. It’s also puzzling because tomatoes (and many other vegetables) naturally contain sugar. So how does one end up with zero grams of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving?

Compare this to another pasta sauce:

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This second sauce, despite having no added sugar, still contains 6 grams of sugar per serving. This is much more the norm  than the sauce in the first photo.

I know that people are trying to cut back on sugar. That’s great. But this is another example of why you might want to pay more attention to the ingredients in a food than to the nutrition facts panel. These are very similar products but tell rather different stories when it comes to sugar content. One supposedly contains no sugar, while the other contains about one and a half teaspoons in a serving. Even if you’re trying to cut back on sugar there’s really no point in getting riled up about a little bit of sugar naturally occurring from vegetables.


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Beyond sugar: Canada’s new nutrition labels

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Last week I wrote about the change to the sugar entry on the new nutrition facts label on foods. Of course, while most of us are focussed on this change, this isn’t the only change to come.

One of the other changes would be the removal of vitamins A and C from the nutrition facts panel. They would be replaced with Potassium and vitamin D. This is because it’s extremely rare for Canadians to be deficient in either vitamin A or vitamin C these days. However, most of us don’t get enough potassium and vitamin D (at least during the winter months). While in some ways I think that this is a good change, in others I’m not certain. The inclusion of these nutrients on nutrition labels provides us as consumers with valuable information. It also provides food manufacturers with the impetus to add potassium and vitamin D to foods in order to improve their nutrient profiles. Adding vitamins and minerals to a highly processed fairly unhealthy food won’t miraculously make it healthy. Generally, it’s better to choose natural sources of these nutrients.

Health Canada is also planning on standardizing serving sizes. This means that if, for example, you’re comparing one loaf of bread to another, the nutrition facts will have to be for two slices of bread. You won’t find one loaf that has the nutrition information for a single slice and another that has it for two. While it will definitely make comparison shopping easier it may also lead to some confusion about serving sizes. Yes, most of us will eat two slices of bread as a serving, but a Canada Food Guide serving of bread is still one slice. You don’t get to eat twice as many sandwiches as before and still consume an appropriate number of servings of grains and cereals.

In addition to the changes to the nutrition facts panel, the label will now also have to more clearly list the ingredients in an easy to read box. I don’t think that any of us (even me) can complain about that! As I’ve said before, you’re generally better off reading the ingredients than the nutrition facts panel.


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The bloody blood type diet is back

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If you really want to drive a dietitian to drink you should have a conversation about ridiculous fad diets in front of her/him (yes, there are a few male RDs, I swear). But I digress. So, here I am, innocently minding my business, when a couple of women nearby start conversing about their gluten-free diets and how much better they feel when they actually follow them. As in, when they “cheat” they eat a bunch of processed refined glutinous food. Then, as if I’m not being tormented enough, one of them starts extolling the virtues of the blood type diet. Yes, I too thought that one was passé. I guess, like mullets and crocs, we will never truly be free of the “eat for your blood type diet”. If you haven’t heard of it you’re lucky. I’m not going to provide you with a link because if you honestly want to read about that drivel you can google it.

Yes, woman number two proceeds to tell woman number one about how great she feels when she’s following it and lists a number of the foods she can eat on this diet. All of them are nutritious whole foods. Both women marvel at the miracle of gluten-free blood-type diets. I begin to question if I am perhaps dead and have gone to hell.

Ladies, I hate to rain on your fad diet parade but it’s not the gluten. It has nothing to do with eating for your blood type. You feel better when you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food because you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food. You don’t need a cleanse or a ridiculous diet to feel better. Just prepare and eat healthy food about 80% of the time and for the love of all that’s holy (or whatever), please don’t have these conversations in front of dietitians or your children. Children learn by observing and if they see their parent(s) struggling with food issues, following fad diets, falling off diets, guess who’s liable to end up following suit?


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Does adding the percent daily value to the nutrition label add value or confusion?

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The news broke the other day that, despite calls from the public, Health Canada will not be revising the nutrition facts panel to include added sugars. According to our current health minister, one of the most “significant” changes will be the inclusion of a percent daily value for sugar.

Despite the lack of evidence for a specific recommendation for sugar intake (either added or naturally occurring) the percent daily value will be based on a total of 100 grams of sugar (approximately 25 teaspoons). This kind of blows my mind. I think that it’s absurd to make numerical recommendations for nutrients to people when we don’t know how much people can (or should) safely consume. Everyone’s all up in arms about sugar being toxic and the root of obesity which, if you read this blog regularly, you know I think is melodramatic at best, misguided fear mongering at worst. So, how exactly are we making recommendations for total sugar intake when we don’t know what that should look like?

Another dietitian on twitter pointed out to me that the percent daily value is not a recommended amount to consume. Rather, it’s a tool to help people make healthy choices. A percent daily value of less than 5% is “a little”, while more than 15% is “a lot”. Yes, that’s how we’ve tried to frame the confusing percent daily value in recent years but I wonder, is that really how most people use it? And, considering that technically percent daily value is based on the recommended nutrient consumption for an “average” 2, 000 calorie diet, wouldn’t that mean that the arbitrary 100 grams of sugar be either a quantity to aim for or at least a maximum to stay under? Personally, I’d prefer to see the percent daily value removed from the nutrition facts panel rather than the addition of a %DV for total sugar.

Of course, beyond the addition of fairly useless information, Health Canada won’t be adding the more useful information that we were all screaming for. Nope, if you want to know if your food has added sugar in it then you’ll have to check the ingredient list (often preferable to the nutrition facts panel anyway but much more time consuming). Look for all of the usual suspects (e.g. anything ending in “ose”, sugar (duh), molasses, honey, syrup, fruit juice or puree, etc). Ideally, you want most of the sugar you consume to be naturally occurring so your food might not have an ingredient list (like an apple) or it might contain sugar but not have any sugars in the ingredients (like plain yoghurt). Limiting the number of pre-made foods you consume may mean that you spend more time in the kitchen but it will save you time reading labels in the grocery store and likely give you more healthy years to enjoy your life.


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The harm in fad diets

Many of us roll our eyes when we hear about people on fad diets. I think that most of us think, “oh well, it’s not doing them any harm. Let it run its course”. But what if these diets are doing people harm?  I’m not about fear mongering, you know this. Many of these trendy diets can be safe and healthy when followed properly. However, what about when they’re not? There is reasonable risk of deficiencies that could cause some degree of harm at worst, and at best prevent the adherents from attaining optimal health.

What’s the harm in a low-carb or gluten-free or paleo diet?

I’m lumping these two in together even though they’re not strictly the same, although it seems that they frequently go hand-in-hand. Here the risk lies in B vitamin deficiency. Yes, many B vitamins are available from animal foods. However, folic acid (which I blogged about a few weeks ago) was added to refined flour and cereals as a public health measure to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy in 1998 (1). Eliminating grains from the diet may lead to increased risk of spina bifida, and other neural tube defects, in infants of mothers following these diets. It’s recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Women who are following the above diets should be sure to follow this recommendation. The crucial window for neural tube formation is within the first 21-28 days of pregnancy. This means that if you wait to start taking a prenatal multivitamin once you find out you’re pregnant you may have already missed this window.

What’s the harm in a vegan diet?

While touted as one of the healthiest diets, a vegan diet can easily be deficient in essential nutrients. As with the low-carb diets above, a vegan diet may be low in some B vitamins. In this case, vitamin B12 is more likely to be the B vitamin of concern than is folic acid.

Vitamin B12 is important for many reasons. We need B12 for blood cell formation, nerve function, and brain function.

Vitamin D is also a concern in vegan diets as it’s primarily found in milk, fish, and eggs. During the winter months it’s difficult for most of us, vegans and non-vegans alike, to get enough vitamin D from food alone.

What’s the harm in a low-sodium diet?

This isn’t even so much a risk of low-sodium diet but of a diet that eschews table salt in particular. Now that sea salt is the salt selection of foodies and many of us are avoiding salt shakers there is potential for insufficient iodine consumption. Table salt is fortified with iodine, sea salt is not.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in poor mental development. Iodine is important in thyroid function and deficiency may result in the development of a goiter.

Now, to be fair, when consideration of balance, variety, and nutrients is taken into consideration all of these diets may be healthy. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that the average Western diet is probably less nutritious than all of the above diets. Most people consume too few vegetables and fruits, too much sodium, sugar, and fat. Most of us, even those of us consuming relatively healthy diets, don’t get enough potassium, vitamin D, magnesium, and fibre. While the focus should definitely be on whole food, it’s worth considering what nutrients your diet may be low in and making an effort to consume more foods rich in those nutrients or even considering taking a supplement if you’re finding it hard to meet your nutrient needs through food alone.