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Does reading labels really make you healthier?

Nutrition labels are certainly handy to get a sense of what you’re consuming at a glance. But does checking the label guarantee you’re on the road to better health?

woman reading food label

Know what you’re looking for

Turning a can over to read the nutrition label doesn’t automatically mean you’ll make healthier decisions. For your curiosity to be productive, you have to know what you’re looking for. A great place to start is the ingredients list. Generally speaking, the more ingredients an item contains and the more challenging those ingredients are to pronounce, the less you want to consume that item. For the most part, focus on finding items that are as close to their natural forms as possible.

Next, take a look at what constitutes a “serving.” For example, peanut butter tends to be 100 calories per tablespoon. But very few people spread just a tablespoon on their sandwiches. So if you eat more or less than what constitutes a “serving,” the values grow or lessen accordingly.

Many individuals need to keep a lookout for items such as trans fats, saturated fats and sodium. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their total fats intake to 56–78 grams a day and keep their cholesterol intake under 300 milligrams. If you’ve been told to increase your intake of iron, fibre or another nutrient, those are items to pay particular attention to. Just as reading a manual for how to set your alarm clock is helpful only if you understand what’s being explained to you, reading a food label is valuable only if you know what you’re looking for.

Know what it’s based on

Keep in mind that the values listed on food labels are estimations, and those estimations are based on the assumption that you consume 2,000 calories a day. But the truth is, how much food you require varies widely based on such factors as age, gender and activity level. So how much a product may benefit your health is unique to you.

Know the limitations

We’d all like to believe that the details listed on nutrition labels are 100 per cent accurate. After all, we check it for information, not for fun. So it’s disappointing to know that federal regulations allow a 20 per cent variability on food labels. And a study done at the University of Guelph revealed that 15 per cent of products studied actually went outside that range of variability (CBC News). So if you’re trying to lose weight or improve your health, checking the labels may actually mislead you into eating more or less than your body requires. Although reading labels can certainly act as a starting point, make sure to exercise common sense when selecting your foods. If something a nutrition label says seems too good to be true, it very well may be. Do a little bit more digging to be sure.

More health tips

How to get the most nutrition out of your veggies
Foods and nutrients to boost skin’s nutrition
Nutrition tips in honour of National Nutrition Month

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