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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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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Why you should read the ingredients

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A couple of weeks ago, a study of packaged foods in the US showed that many of them listing 0% trans-fat on the labels actually still contained trans-fat. Many dietitians said, “No shit”. This is why reading the ingredients is often more valuable than reading the nutrition facts panel.

Many manufacturers use trans-fat in their food products but also use a serving size that allows them to report the amount of trans-fat per serving as being 0%. Until trans-fats are banned, what can you do about this? One, you can read the ingredient list. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated”. That’s your trans-fat. Avoid foods containing any partially hydrogenated ingredients. Two, make your own food. When you make it yourself you can decide what goes into your food. Use as few highly-processed packaged foods as possible. I know that it’s not realistic to expect that everyone is going to start cooking and baking everything at home. Be savvy. Do what you can. Aim for packaged foods with as few ingredients as possible. And remember that while you may be saving time in the short-term by buying frozen dinners, you’ll likely lose time in the long-run.


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Nutrition labels are getting a makeover – Have your say!

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Big news announcement from Health Canada yesterday: proposed new nutrition label guidelines are available for viewing and input

For once, I think that Health Canada is heading in the right direction with these labels. The key (proposed) changes are:

Improved new serving size guidelines

This will ensure that similar products will have to use similar serving sizes; thus, making comparisons easier. For example, all bread will have to use two slices as the serving size, and all yoghurt will have to use 175 grams. Of course, you’ll still have to do some math if the amount you normally eat differs from the serving size used on the package, but at least you won’t have to do algebra to determine which tub of yoghurt is the healthier choice. One thing I wonder about this change for the yoghurt is how it will affect those “single serve” tubs that are only 100 grams. Will they have to list their nutrition information as 175 grams? So you’ll still have to do math if you’re not planning on eating 1 and 3/4 tubs of yoghurt? I also wonder about products that currently list serving sizes that don’t match with what you would actually eat. For example, I’ve seen some packages of “bites” that contain 5 bites but the serving size is based on 1/6th of the package. I hope that this is something that will no longer be allowed when the new guidelines are approved.

Improved sugar disclosure

I love that they are proposing listing all sugars (e.g. fructose, honey, rice syrup, glucose, evaporated cane juice, etc) together in parentheses on the label following the listing of “sugar”. Of course, this will make it more difficult to determine where (based on weight) the different forms of sugar fall in the list but it helps prevent the current sneaky tactic by food manufacturers of putting in multiple types of sugar scattered throughout the ingredient list. I can’t help but wonder how they’ll address the issue of sneaky sweeteners like fruit puree and fruit juice concentrate. I hope that they’ll list those along-side the other sugars and that they’ll count them in the new “added sugars” line on the nutrition facts panel. I worry that this may be a bit of a loophole for food manufacturers trying to healthwash their products if it’s not required to be listed as sugar.

I’m not sure how I feel about the application of the “5% is a little, 15% is a lot” guide to Daily Values in relation to sugar, and other nutrients. Health Canada uses 100 grams (about 25 teaspoons) of sugar as the amount to calculate the percent daily value. I think that many people look at the %DV as an amount to shoot for. In some cases this is true. In others, it’s more of a maximum (e.g. sodium), and in others, a minimum (e.g. vitamin D). The current figures used for the %DV are also outdated and it’s great to see that Health Canada is proposing that we update those.

Appearance of the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list

There’s nothing really wrong with the new design. I definitely like what they’re proposing for the ingredients list. However, I would like to see the Nutrition Facts panel in a different sequence. I’d prefer to see the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrate) in the upper panel (i.e. directly underneath the calories), with any relevant breakdown directly beneath. I think that the sugar, added sugar, and fibre should all be listed under the carbohydrate header. Listing the trans and saturated fat under the fat header is good but maybe we could go a step further and add mono- and poly-unsaturated fat as well.

Micronutrients of concern should be listed in the second section of the panel. I’m not sure about cholesterol and sodium. Dietary cholesterol really isn’t all that relevant; sodium definitely is for many people though. I think that they should either be lumped in with the micronutrients or placed in their own section. I know that we can’t include every micronutrient, and I love the addition of potassium, but I question the removal of vitamins A and C (1). Most Canadians don’t meet their needs for magnesium either so I think that this might be a useful nutrient to add. With the increased popularity of sea salt I wonder if it might be prudent to add iodine to the panel. I’m going to stop there before I disappear down a micronutrient wormhole.

It’s important to note that these are proposed changes. If you want these changes to happen, or if you want to see additional or different changes you need to provide your input to Health Canada (first link in this post).