The ability to analyze food label is an important skill. However, the ability to evaluate the ingredient list often helps provide a better understanding of the value of a food item than the nutritional facts label. Food companies will often label a food as “healthy” based on one or two components of the label, such as “high-protein,” or “low-fat.” The ingredients list, however, might tell a different story. Furthermore, preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, and added flavours used in many packaged foods may contain dangerous substances.

On all packaged foods, ingredients are listed in descending order of proportion of weight. This means that ingredients closest to the end of the list are present in the smallest quantities. As a general rule, fewer ingredients on the food label means that food is a better choice.

A food label sample has been used below and colour coded to explain what the different sections of the of the nutrition label (Fazila, n.d.)

Ingredients to Avoid

  • Trans Fat: Look for the words “hydrogenated” and/or “fractionated”. Nearly all fast foods, baked goods, many packaged crackers, and margarines contain trans fats. Even on a label, if one serving size of food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, the manufacturer can claim it to be trans fat free.
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene):  These additives are often found in breakfast cereals, chips, gum and even vegetable oil to maintain freshness. Some animal studies reveal that BHA and BHT may cause cancer.
  • Food Colourings:  Any brightly coloured packaged food is likely to contain food colouring. Some ingredients to be aware of are: Brilliant Blue FCFC, often found in beverages, candy, cereal, etc.; Indigotine (beverages, candy); Erythrosine (cherries in fruit cocktail, candy); Brilliant Yellow FCF (sausages, candy, gelatin desserts). Be aware that the label may only read “colour,” but one of the above is likely used. Studies indicate these artificial dyes can lead to cancer of the thyroid, adrenal glands, kidneys, and brain. These substances are also believed to worsen hyperactivity symptoms in sensitive children.
  • Natural and Artificial Flavours: Both terms are unfavourable. While natural flavouring sounds “natural,” it is not. Title 21, Section 101, part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines natural flavourings and flavours as follows: The term natural flavour or natural flavouring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, eating or enzymolsysis, which contains the flavouring constituents derived from a spice, fruit, or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavouring rather than nutritional.
  • Artificial Sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfamepotassium, etc.):  Individuals who are attempting to lose weight may rely on artificial sweeteners to replace the calories found in sugar. Artificial sweeteners are prevalent in many packaged foods and drinks. There are a number of reasons to eliminate artificial sweeteners from the diet, including they may contribute to cancers, some individuals may experience blurry vision, GI distress, and migraine headaches. As well, a study conducted at Purdue University showed that rats whose diets contained artificial sweeteners appeared to experience a physiological connection between sweet tastes and calories, which drove them to overeat.
  • Sodium Nitrate (becoming nitrite):  This additive is found in processed meats such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs. It is used as a preservative and for colouring, giving some processed meats a reddish colour that would otherwise appear grey. This ingredient can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are cancer causing chemicals. Sodium nitrate has also been shown to increase the incidence of migraines.
  • Sugar:  Food manufacturers know that many people are trying to reduce their consumption of added sugar. To market their products, they often manipulate the reality of the sugar profile in their products. For examples, they may use multiple sources of sugar in one food product to give the appearance of less sugar overall (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, invert sugar, malt, maltodextrin, and maltose).
  • Vegetable Oils:  All processed oils used in pre-packaged, processed foods should be avoided. The polyunsaturated oils used in packaged foods are highly processed and may cause more cardiovascular and bodily harm than the saturated fats they replaced.

Portion Control

Portion control is second to food choice in importance when the goal is weight loss. Although detailed calorie counting is not necessary for most clients to see progress with weight loss, familiarizing themselves with reasonable portion sizes will be critical for success. The following table provides easy visual reminders of various portion sizes:

  • 1 cup = 250 ml or fist or baseball
  • 1/2 cup = 125 lm or cupped hand or half baseball
  • 3 ounces = 85 grammes or palm of hand or deck of cards
  • 1 tablespoon = 15 ml or thumb or half gold ball
  • 1 teaspoon = 5 ml or tip of thumb or postage stamp

A simple solution to eating less and helping you on your weight loss journey is as simple a picking a smaller plate when you eat.

Most of this information comes from my Can Fit Pro Wellness Eating and Weight Loss Coach manual.


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