bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Beyond sugar: Canada’s new nutrition labels


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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Lessons from salty restaurant meals


Last week a study was released showing that sodium levels in chain restaurant meals are still ridiculously high.

The researchers found that some meals contained roughly the maximum amount of sodium an adult should consume throughout an entire day. Sure, some people only eat one meal a day, but this isn’t a recommended pattern of eating, and most of us eat at least three times a day.

While I agree with the researchers that there need to be regulations to ensure that restaurant meals, and packaged foods for that matter, contain lower amounts of sodium and menus are labelled, I think that there are a few more important lessons to be learned here.

First, I just have to say the thing that bothered me the most upon hearing the story on the radio was the man from the restaurant industry who stated that sodium is necessary for flavour and food safety! I get that salt is a common preservative but when I’m eating at a restaurant I’m going for fresh, quality food. The thought that high levels of salt are added to food to make it safe is rather alarming to me. As for the flavour comment, that’s what salt shakers are for. Customers should be given the option of adding more salt to their food. Obviously you can’t remove salt once it’s in a meal (well, at least not at a restaurant table, perhaps in a lab) so why not use the least amount of salt possible, flavour with herb, spices, and lemon zest, and allow customers to add more salt if they desire.

Okay… on to what I think are the important lessons to be learned here… One, this study only looked at restaurants with at least 20 locations. That means local restaurants were not included. Many of these places employ excellent chefs who use fresh ingredients and don’t rely on salt to make their meals flavourful. Talk to the chef if you have concerns about ingredients, find out if nutrition information is available for your favourite dishes. Ultimately: avoid chain restaurants; buy local.

Two, you should be preparing the majority of the meals you eat yourself. Sorry, but you can’t trust anyone. Only you can take care of yourself. Try to use minimally processed ingredients and read labels on any packaged foods you purchase. Restaurants are lovely for a treat but they shouldn’t be providing you with the majority of your meals. Be your own personal chef.

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Breaking the (food labelling) law


A little over a year ago Canada changed the food labelling laws for common allergens. With the growing prevalence of food allergies and celiac disease this change in the law was intended to provide clarity for the consumer. No longer could food manufacturers use the statement “may contain x, y, z, etc” to cover their butts. That statement was now to only be used if there was a real risk of an allergen being present in a food. Consumers were advised to treat any allergen identified in this manner as being present in the ingredient list. Despite this, it seems that some companies are just not getting it.

There are a couple of areas that I’m not sure about as they don’t seem to be clearly covered in the labelling laws: restaurants and supplements. Neither of these are packaged foods; however, it seems to me as they are ingested by consumers they really should have to comply to the same regulations. Then again, we all know how closely the supplement industry is regulated by Health Canada and the CFIA. Despite foods listing “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” on their ingredient lists having to identify the specific vegetable source of the protein in their allergen statement, it seems that supplements do not have to as I have seen many vitamins listing HVP without stating the source.

Not very long ago I was out for dinner with my family. I noticed that the menu offered “gluten-free” pizzas. However, a disclaimer stated that, because the kitchen was not gluten-free there may be cross-contamination of the pizzas. I went on a little tirade to my family about how they shouldn’t make the statement that their pizza crusts are gluten-free if they can’t guarantee that they haven’t been cross-contaminated. I’m sure they meant well but for someone with celiac disease it’s like saying “here, you can eat this, oh, maybe not”. It only takes a very small amount of gluten for someone with celiac disease to become quite ill.

The worst offender though are the Beanitos chips. They’re a relatively new tortilla chip made from beans rather than from corn. The package proudly proclaims that they’re gluten-free yet, if you read the allergen statement it says that they’re “made in a facility that also processes wheat.” Hmm…. Pretty sure that this is contrary to the new labelling laws. If there is enough risk of cross-contamination then you can’t say that your product is gluten-free. This is the butt-covering that the new labelling laws were designed to curtail. Your product is either gluten-free or it’s not.

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We’re eating ourselves to death

You may have recently seen in the news that diet is the top risk factor for disease and premature death in Canada. This is based on a study entitled the Global Burden of Disease. They’ve created a number of reports for countries around the world. The report for Canada indicates that the number one risk factor for disease in our country is diet. The top diseases that it contributes to are: cardiovascular, cancer, and diabetes. The second greatest risk factor is smoking, followed by body mass index (BMI) which (in some cases) can also be an issue of diet. Scrolling down the list there are a number of additional risk factors which are also closely related to diet: high blood pressure, high fasting plasma glucose, high total cholesterol, alcohol use, iron deficiency, and low bone mineral density.

I think that there are two sides to this coin. On one side, it’s unfortunate that we’re essentially making ourselves ill. On the other side, diet is a controllable risk factor so we have the power to improve our health. Honestly, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Healthy eating doesn’t mean never having a cookie or french fries. The most important step you can take to improve your diet is to simply prepare the vast majority of the food you eat at home. Don’t rely on restaurants, take-out, or pre-packaged meals. Take a page from this year’s Nutrition Month theme which is: Plan, Shop, Cook, Enjoy! Use the findings of this report and the fact that it’s Nutrition Month as motivation to set a healthy eating goal for yourself. Start small. If you eat lunch out everyday make a plan to bring lunch from home at least one or two days of the week. Or, ensure that you always have nutritious snacks on hand so that you’re not buying a chocolate bar or bag of chips when you get hungry. Don’t try to overhaul your entire diet at once. You’re too likely to get frustrated and give up entirely. Chose one goal for the month and then build on that.