My motivation for writing this post came from a recent experience where I forgot to read a nutrition label. My husband likes soy sauce and I usually buy a low-sodium version or Tamari for myself. On this occasion, I was at a different grocery store and couldn’t find my usual brand. I picked up the first thing I saw without even looking at the label. A few weeks later I was making a dumpling sauce for my husband and had a taste on the tip of my finger to make sure it tasted ok. I was horrified. I spit it out and immediately looked at the bottle of soy sauce. I was shocked to see what was listed on the label, over 1200mg of sodium in ONE tablespoon. What? How is this even being sold for human consumption? I took another taste of the soy sauce on its own to make sure it wasn’t my other ingredients throwing off the flavour, but no, it was horrible on its own.

Since my husband had already consumed this product on a few occasions, I asked if he’d noticed how horrible it was. Of course not. I rummaged through our kitchen drawers to find a packet of restaurant take-out soy sauce and did a taste test. Although they were both salty, the take-out packet actually tasted like soy sauce. The ‘soy sauce’ I had purchased tasted like pure salt with some caramel flavouring. I declared that I would not feed this product to anyone in my household, and poured it out.

I highly recommend reading the nutrition labels for EVERYTHING you buy. Information is power, and is essential when you’re trying to eat well and fuel your body, and your family’s, with food that’s nutritious and not full of salt, sugar and fats. Although all the information listed on the nutrition label is of value, and some people might focus on calories, carbs, fats, protein, macros, etc.; but I think that to keep things easy, it’s best to keep an eye on these 5 ingredients:

Serving size, Fats, Salt, Sugar and Fiber

Don’t worry, you won’t have to look at labels for every food you buy, just in the beginning and for new foods that you purchase. Once you’ve checked out a nutrition label and given the item the green light, you don’t need to look at the label again the next time you purchase it (unless you’re comparing similar products).

I read food labels 95% of the time. When I see a breakfast cereal or other prepared snack food with over a certain amount of salt or sugar, I just don’t buy it. This also reinforces the importance of purchasing fresh, whole foods as opposed to processed/packaged foods. I know we’re all busy and it’s hard to make everything from scratch, and that our kids want to eat the ‘fun’ packaged foods, but when we do make the choice to purchase something that requires a nutrition label, it’s important that we read it and make an informed decision as to whether we bring it into our home and put it into our bodies.

It’s good to understand all the information listed on a nutrition label, but this is what I tend to focus on.

my Top 5 Nutrients to focus on:

Serving size – Compare the serving size on the package to the amount that you actually eat. We often eat double the listed serving size, so this is top line information deserves your first look.

Fat – I don’t mind some fat in my diet, but if something seems ridiculously high for the portion size, I pass. For example, I was at Costco today and read the label for a package of sausages, which are generally high in fat, but this package listed 1 sausage at 31g of fat. Wow.

Sodium – Canned soups, condiments, snack crackers and processed meats are generally all high in sodium. Remember, adequate sodium intake is about 1500 mg for an adult, and shouldn’t exceed 2300mg/day. Source: Health Canada

Sugar – Once you start reading nutrition labels, and keeping an eye on added sugars, you’ll be surprised to see that sugar is in EVERYTHING! It’s so hard to get away from it, which probably explains why we love our sweet treats. Keep in mind that women should be eating an average of 25mg, or 6 teaspoons, of sugar per day – one can of soda exceeds this.  Source: American Heart Association

Fiber – The average adult should eat between 21 and 38 grams of fiber daily. Fibre helps lower cholesterol, improves bowel movements, helps control blood sugar levels, and are more filling so they help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Source:  Mayo Clinic

Additionally, reading nutrition labels can help you to: compare products more easily, manage special diets, increase or decrease your intake of a particular nutrient (for example, increase fibre, decrease saturated fat) and help you be more in control of what you’re eating on a daily basis.

Be an informed consumer and mindful of what you’re using to fuel your body. Remember the famous 80/20 rule, it applies to sustaining a healthy weight too. Be mindful of your decisions 80% of the time, and you’ll be healthier and happier for it.

Photo credit: Enokson via / CC BY-NC