Monday, February 15, 2010 by being label savvy

Dietitians tend to dish out a lot of lessons to help you label read like a pro...but do we ever stop and ask ourselves whether or not we should care sometimes? Reading labels can help with a lot of you separate the high fibre cereal from the fluffy versions, help you avoid the foods that have 5 pounds of salt poured into them and even to help you get the most calcium for your bones. However, now that nutrition messages on the front of the pack have exploded to almost laughable proportions we have to ask ourselves...why?

First things first...nine times out of ten, if a food comes in a fancy package, it is less healthy than one that doesn't. Example? Lucky Charms versus brown rice or granola bars versus broccoli. So why are those packages screaming at you with health claims? Because they know you want to eat healthier and they are doing their best to convince you that their product has the nutritional advantage over their competitor and they also know that they have the platform to tell you about their apparent benefits while the bulk quinoa silently looks on. However, unlike the cold hard nutrition facts and ingredients listings...front of the pack claims, while technically truthful, are usually pretty misleading. Here are five from my hall of time you see them, laugh, move on and buy the broccoli instead.

1. Whole Grain....ah yes! Made with 100% whole grain, that must be healthy right? Wrong! Next time you see this claim, compare the food to a grain of brown rice or quinoa. How different do they look? The health benefits of whole grains get distorted the further away you get from its raw, natural state. Brown rice or wheat kernels? Healthy! 100% whole wheat spaghetti? Still pretty healthy! 100% whole grain lucky charms? Not a chance. Milled flour, turned into paste and exploded into airy shapes and packaged with sugary marshmallows? Think about it. And don't even get me started on "white" 100% whole wheat...Best whole grain cereal choice? Steel cut oats. Next best? Anything with more than 5 grams of fibre per Nature's Path Optimum or Smart Bran.

2. Sweetened with fruit juice...usually found on kid's fruit snack packages. Sorry moms but this one is out there to stump you. Fruit juice concentrate is sugar...pure and simple. All fruit juice is nothing more than sugar and water and a few vitamins (if it is less processed) and when it is concentrated to the level of syrup, what's left? Just sugar folks! Candy is candy, even if it goes by the name of fruit snacks.

3. Cholesterol Free...this one is fun, because it is usually on potato chips. To find the humor in this claim, you have to know that all plant foods do not have cholesterol.  Avocados? No cholesterol! Coconut? No cholesterol! Potatoes? No cholesterol! Vegetable oil? No cholesterol! So potato chips are naturally cholesterol free...still loaded with deep fried fat but yes - no cholesterol! Unless you already have heart disease, food cholesterol is not as important to your heart health as saturated don't think of cholesterol free goodies as health food, deal?

4. Trans Fat Free...trans fats are horrible, it's true. So as we were learning how widespread they are in our food supply, this claim helped us support companies that refused to use them and send a message to food manufacturers to clean up their ways. However, just because a food is trans fat free doesn't mean its healthy. Trans fat free Doritos are still loaded with MSG and saturated fat and artificial colours and flavours. A treat is a treat...enjoy a little bit and move on!

5. 100% Juice...this one can be terrible because most of us think of juice as a really healthy food and drink it with abandon. Remember my comment above? That juice is just sugar and water? Well, they can take a lot of the water out of the fruit juice and technically it is still 100% juice - with a sugar content not found in nature. Looking for a fun experiment to test this one out? Buy a 100% cranberry juice from a big name brand and then find a 100% cranberry juice NOT from concentrate (notice the price difference are foods that require more intensive processing cheaper??). In the US and Canada, you have Lakewood brand and in Canada, you also have Bremner's (my personal fave). Pour an ounce of each into separate shot glasses. Taste the big taste the not from concentrate. In all likelihood, you could barely drink the not from concentrate stuff. The difference? A lot of sugar...and because we have been so weaned on heavily sweetened foods, most of us have lost our taste for the bitter, astringent and sour foods found in nature.

The take home message? We don't really need juice in our diets but if you are going to do it, drink NOT from concentrate every single time and keep it to a 1/2 cup a day.

Healthy, savvy you...1...Sneaky food manufacturers...0!

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