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(Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Why you should read nutrition labels between the lines Add to ...

You'll see them stamped on boxes of cereal, tubs of yogurt, cartons of juice and packages of cookies. Claims such as "whole grain," "probiotics," "trans fat free," and "contains real fruit" that are intended to move a product off the shelf into your grocery cart.

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Picking out healthy foods isn't as straightforward as it seems. For instance, products labelled "whole grain" or "multigrain" aren't always as nutritious as you'd think. And foods made with "real fruit" may contain more refined sugar than actual fruit.

With so many enticing labels calling out to you, how do you know if a product is actually good for you or just healthy sounding? You need to read the fine print - the nutrition facts and ingredient list - to get the whole story.

To make a healthier selection at the grocery store, use the following guide:

Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal

If you choose the right cereal, your morning meal could beat out other breakfasts when it comes to fibre, calcium and zinc.

First, check the ingredient list. Top picks in the cereal aisle are those that list a whole grain such as whole wheat, oats or brown rice as the first ingredient. (Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.) While 100 per cent bran cereals aren't made from the entire grain kernel, you can consider them whole grain since they're a concentrated source of bran that's missing from refined grains.

Next, read the nutrition label. Choose a cereal with at least 5 grams of fibre, no more than 6 grams of sugar (excluding sugar from dried fruit) and no more than 240 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Sliced bread

Look for bread that's made from 100 per cent whole grains. That means it does not contain any refined flour. Whole rye, rye meal, oats, whole spelt and whole grain wheat including the germ indicate whole grain flours.

Choose a loaf that delivers at least 2 grams of fibre and no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per slice. Nutrition labels may give nutrient numbers for one or two slices.

Crackers

Not all crackers live up to their healthy sounding names. Some actually deliver few or no whole grains, little fibre and too much sodium.

Better crackers are made from 100 per cent whole grain flours and have at least three 3 grams of fibre per 30 gram serving. They're also trans fat free and have no more than one gram of saturated fat and 240 milligrams of sodium per 30 grams.

Watch serving size when comparing brands. Many companies list the number of crackers per standard 30 gram serving. Others, however, disclose nutrient numbers for a 20 gram portion or less.

Frozen meals

With so many frozen meals crowding the frozen food aisle, it's surprisingly difficult to find one that's easy on sodium and contains more than a smattering of vegetables.

To choose a healthier product, look for one that contains no more than 4 grams of saturated fat and less than 700 milligrams of sodium. (If you're going to dine on a frozen entrée, keep your other meals for the day low in sodium.) More fibre indicates more vegetables or legumes. Choose a meal with at least 4 grams of fibre. A daily value of 15 per cent or greater for vitamins A and C means you're getting a good source of these antioxidants.

Granola and cereal bars

Some of these supposedly healthy snacks made from whole grains look more like candy bars with ingredients such as chocolate chips, candy pieces, caramel and yogurt coating.

The healthiest bars list a whole grain such as oats or whole wheat as the first ingredient and do not contain sweetened filling or coating.

Choose a bar with at least 2 grams of fibre, no more than 2 grams saturated plus trans fat (combined) and no more than 140 milligrams of sodium. To limit refined sugar, look for products with no more than half the total carbohydrates from sugars.

Soups

Most soups made from broth or water are low in calories and fat. But many serve up a hefty dose of sodium and lack nutrient-rich vegetables.

The most nutritious soups are made with beans and vegetables. Look for soups that provide at least 4 grams of fibre per 250 ml.

Select a soup that has less than 2 grams of saturated fat and no more than 500 milligrams of sodium per 250 ml serving. Look for at least 15 per cent of the daily value for two or more of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron or calcium.

Salad dressing

Of course, the healthiest salad dressing is the one you make from scratch with a healthy oil and little or no salt. But when pressed for time, commercial salad dressings are convenient.

Choose products made from extra virgin olive oil (heart-healthy monounsaturated fat) or canola oil (a source of the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid). Look for a dressing that contains less than 300 milligrams of sodium per 2 tablespoons.

Yogurt

Choose the wrong yogurt and you may as well get your calcium from ice cream. Start by choosing a lower fat version containing 1 per cent milk fat (MF) or less.

Aim for less than 20 grams of sugar (this includes natural milk sugar, lactose) and at least 20 per cent of the daily value for calcium per 175 g serving.

A food guide serving of yogurt is 175 grams (3/4 cup). That's how much it takes to get the calcium and protein found in one cup of milk. (Extra sugar means more calories, less protein and less calcium).

For smaller tubs, you'll have to do a little math to convert serving size.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

 

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