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Why you should be reading the ingredients list on food labels

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Earlier this month, I was invited to do a workshop with a group of youth from the Northern Youth Abroad Program.

Northern Youth Abroad programming serves to enhance youth participation and success in education, career development, personal goal setting, and community leadership. NYA assists in enabling northern youth to become full participants in the ongoing development of Canada’s North. Each program operates over a ten-month period and is highlighted by a five to six-week summer travel placement in southern Canada or abroad. The group I joined was in Ottawa for the summer and just wrapping up their time at the Macskimming Centre in Cumberland.

The group I spent the afternoon with were between 18-22 years of age. Most were starting to think about college and moving away from home to live in a dorm setting. We started the workshop learning what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. I strived to keep the workshop as interactive as possible, ensuring their engagement, and I was blown away. They knew so much and had a great pulse on what living a healthy lifestyle meant. So many participated, contributing with responses such as taking time for oneself, getting lots of sleep, and eating wholesome foods. If you are looking for more on what I think living a healthy lifestyle should incorporate, check out my last blog where I talk about what it really means to live a healthy lifestyle.

During the second half of the workshop, we discussed the importance of reading food labels. I asked them what they looked at first when reading a food label. The majority replied that they looked at calories first, which can be found in the nutritional value section of the food label. This answer did not surprise me one bit. Our society has been trained by the food and health industry to worry about staying within a restrictive calorie intake, and disregarding whether or not the food has any nutritional value. And while I don’t think the nutritional value column of the label is a bad source of information, it can typically be confusing and misleading if you don’t read it carefully. Take calories, for example. Many products boast that their product is only 100 calories per serving. Calories are what our body uses for energy. So, ok, great you’ve just consumed something that was only 100 calories but will that sustain you until your next meal? Will you be reaching for another package because eating only 100 calories in a sitting wasn’t enough? What vitamins, minerals, fats, will your body extract from that serving?

So what should we focus on when at the grocery store and examining food labels?The ingredients list is my go-to and will often determine whether or not I will be purchasing the product for my family.

Here’s what I look at when reading food labels:

  • Look at the ingredients list first! Are there many? Can you pronounce the words? Can you identify the ingredients? Or do you need it to sound it out? If you need a science degree to make sense of the ingredient list, this usually means there is some type of chemically derived additives, colouring or preservatives in the product

  • Are the ingredients whole foods or derived from whole foods? We want whole foods ALWAYS.

  • How many times do you see sugar or sugar substitutes? Here are a few samples of the types of sugars you may find in just one product: sugar, glucose, sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, galactose, maltose, stevia, sucralose (splenda), xylitol.

  • Are there 10 ingredients or less?

As a group, we examined the ingredients list of a couple of popular granola bars for kids. I wanted participants to understand the importance of what kinds of foods or 'food like' products they are putting into their bodies. We discussed the importance of having ingredients that come from real, whole foods, not ingredients that have been modified or altered. I stressed the importance of avoiding products that have ingredients they can’t pronounce (because they are likely a preservative or filler that isn’t doing anything good for their bodies). I reminded them that sugar can be in the ingredients list but you shouldn't see it more than once! And lastly, I encouraged them to buy products that have 10 ingredients or less.

We had such a great time learning about adopting healthy habits, and I’m confident this group will put their knowledge to good use if and when they decide to live on their own. In all, it was such a great afternoon spent with a very smart and very funny group from the North!

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