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This week, the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition released findings from a report detailing the extent to which Canadians have evolved in their nutrition knowledge, food concerns and eating habits since 1989.

One would think we've come a long way in the past two decades. In 1989, we lived in a pre-Internet world. Today, the World Wide Web has given us the ability to have health and nutrition information at our fingertips. Nutrition labels, virtually non-existent 20 years ago, now appear on almost all food packages to help guide our eating choices.

Two decades ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a story about nutrition in the news. Today, hardly a day goes by when the media don't report on diet and health.

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Yet, surprisingly, our knowledge of nutrition has increased only marginally when it comes to fat and fibre, according to the report, titled Tracking Nutrition Trends: A 20-year History. (It draws on data from a series of seven surveys first initiated in 1989. The latest instalment of the Tracking Nutrition Trends survey was published in 2008.)

The number of Canadians who report poor or mediocre eating habits has risen to 26 per cent in 2008 from 15 per cent in 1989, a statistic that parallels other research findings.

According to Statistics Canada, the majority of Canadians don't meet food-guide requirements for fruit, vegetables and dairy products.

With type 2 diabetes on the rise, and one-half of adults and one-quarter of children in this country overweight or obese, we seem to be going wrong somewhere.

Among my private-practice nutrition clients, information overload and a lack of time are among the most common barriers to eating healthfully.

Some things have changed. Today, we are far more aware of trans fat and sodium than we were even a decade ago.

And while the Internet plays a large role in providing health and diet information, most Canadians turn to food labels to get their nutrition facts. Today, almost six out of 10 people read food labels regularly to seek out ingredient information, nutrient content and best-before dates.

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While the number of Canadians using food labels has remained pretty constant since 1989, the amount of information on food packages has increased and has become more complicated.

Since the introduction of mandatory nutrition labelling in December, 2005, you can now choose foods based on fat, trans fat, sugar, fibre, sodium and so on. If that's not enough to help you choose one brand over another, you can always scan the percentage daily value (DV).

There's little question in my mind that nutrition labels are a source of confusion for many people. How do you decide which nutrient to focus on when choosing a food? What does the daily value mean anyway?

Previous studies have shown that consumers often have difficulty understanding nutrition labels and lack the math skills needed to decipher them. Some experts have suggested more consumer-friendly nutrition labelling systems. Even if Canada's nutrition labels were to change, this would be years down the road.

Based on its 20-year report, the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition is calling on the government and food industry to educate us on how to read - and use - nutrition labels optimally.

To help you make sense of nutrition labels - and apply them to your diet - the following tips will help you avoid common label-reading blunders.

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Check serving size

The only way to know how much fat, sugar, sodium or fibre you're consuming is to compare the serving size listed on the label with the amount you actually eat. Don't assume that one package of food - a bottle of fruit juice, a frozen dinner, a frozen pizza, or even a bagel - is one serving. Figure out how much you eat and then do the math.

Use daily values

These percentages - based on average recommended intakes - are listed for fat, saturated and trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Instead of trying to remember the amount each DV is based on, follow the "five and 25 rule."

If a label says one serving supplies 5 per cent or less of the daily value, that's a good thing for nutrients you want to curtail such as saturated and trans fat, sugars and sodium. But it's not ideal for fibre, vitamins and minerals, nutrients you might want to consume more of.

If one serving of a food supplies 25 per cent or more for vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, or fibre, it's an excellent source of these nutrients.

For saturated and trans fats, the daily value is set at 20 grams. Foods low in these fats will have a daily value of 10 per cent or less.

For sodium, the DV is set at 2,400 milligrams, an amount that is actually higher than your daily sodium requirement. Foods with a DV of 5 per cent or less will be low in sodium.

Watch sugar numbers

Keep in mind that grams of sugars include refined sugars added during processing and naturally occurring sugars in milk and fruit. A whole-grain breakfast cereal with dried fruit will have more sugar than one without, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Don't focus on total fat

For most foods, total fat per serving is not that important. Some fats, such as omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fat, have health benefits. Instead, focus on saturated and trans fats, the two fats that can raise LDL cholesterol.

Don't get psyched out

Avoid trying to decipher too many numbers Think about who in your family is going to eat the food. Someone with high blood pressure? High cholesterol? If so, sodium and saturated and trans fats are important.

Consider how often you eat the food in question - every day or once in a while? The answer will determine your focus of attention.

Get the whole picture

Just because a food carries a "trans fat-free" or "calorie-reduced" claim doesn't mean it is nutritious. These foods may deliver a hefty dose of sodium or sugar and may be lacking whole grains. You need to read the entire label - including the ingredient list - to know what you're eating.

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

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