Food labels are an important part of making informed decisions about our diet. The information on the back of a box provides key facts about calories, nutrients, and the ingredients in different products! I am interested in food labels, especially as I learn more about nutrition and key nutrients.
For example, in one of my earlier posts, I highlighted the fact that most North Americans get nowhere near enough potassium in their diet! Since then, I check the potassium content on various foods. However, to my surprise, it isn’t commonly found on the food label – even on potassium-rich foods like broccoli slaw!
On the flip side, vitamin C is always on the food label, even though it is pretty difficult to have a vitamin C deficiency now.
In this article, I will provide some history of the food label, and explore how it is constantly changing. The food label does provide important information that helps us make informed decisions. However, it is also a product of its time, culture, and our current understandings of nutrition.
Food Labels: A Recent Canadian Addition
Did you know that Canada only began regulating food labels in 2003? That’s not too long ago! (Although it has been almost 20 years! Yikes!)
Food labels are designed to help consumers make informed decisions about their diet. Over time, the ways we label food have changed.
In 2013, Health Canada consulted Canadians to learn what they liked (and didn’t like) about current food labels. The results of this inquiry led to more standardization of servings. They increased labels on local and ethical products. There was also a call for more regulations regarding the “may contain” allergen label, which was previously optional.
So what can we take away from this recent history?
In short, it is an evolving science and a science that is deeply impacted by the real lives and experiences of Canadians. As we know, dietary trends, such as going dairy-free or gluten-free, have resulted in labels we never would have seen otherwise! I didn’t even know the word “keto” until a few years ago.
This means that we have to take food labels with a grain of salt. While they are certainly informed by nutritionists, they are also influenced by social climates. Companies have many names for dangerous, or unethical ingredients (like the wide variety of names of palm oil). Moreover, something like serving size can be difficult to understand, especially if you don’t weigh your food.
Where Is The Potassium?
As I stated at the start of this article, my interest in food labels was piqued when I noticed that many labels did not include how much potassium was in a product (even when it was a rich source of potassium).
Well, it appears I am NOT the first person to ask this question!
This problem was highlighted as early as five years ago, and Health Canada has been making the necessary changes ever since.
Changes that are to be made by 2022 include:
- Increase the consistency and realism of serving sizes
- Making information about calories easier to find
- Updating % daily values to reflect current scientific research, and adding a % daily value for total sugars
- Adding potassium!
- Removing vitamin C and vitamin A (because most Canadians get enough in their diets)
- Adding amounts in milligrams (mg) for iron, calcium, and potassium
Alongside changes that will make reading the ingredients list easier, these adjustments are designed to help Canadians better understand what they are eating.
How You Can Use Food Labels Properly?
Food labels can be very helpful! They are necessary for those avoiding harmful allergens, but also facilitate the public’s understanding of nutrition and diet. But, it is also a lot of information to take in at one time – especially if you are comparing every single item you are buying at the grocery store.
To understand a food label, there are a few key components you must recognize.
- Serving size: the serving size recommends how much you should eat at a time. Likewise, if you tend to eat more servings at a time (or less), you have to adjust the nutrient information. For example, if two crackers has 20 calories, but I normally eat 20 crackers, then I have to adjust my calories (it would become 200 calories!).
- Calories: now, in diet culture, calories have become villainized. Calorie counting is something that I, as well as many of my peers, grew up with. Now, I am a firm believer that counting calories is more stress than it’s worth. Ultimately, information on calories is valuable to a point. Some calories have more value than others (peanut butter vs potato chips), and some people need a heck of a lot more calories than others. However, it still allows us to see how much “energy” a serving will give us at a time.
- Nutrients: when I look at a food label, I focus most of my attention on nutrients. Why? Because, as I suggested above, some foods have more value than others. Something that is rich in vitamins, fiber, and protein is much more valuable than a granola bar that is mostly made of sugar. This section, for me, helps clarify the value of that serving.
Food For Thought
I hope you found this article informative, and I highly encourage everyone to read the food labels when possible! Soon those labels will become even more informative with the adjustments being made by the Canadian government (and FDA).
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