Ignorance Is Not Bliss When it Comes To Food

Two steps to boost your food IQ and see through marketing hype

Is 380 calories for a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte a lot? What about 53 grams of sugar in a Naked Green Machine smoothie? Or 620 mg of sodium in a slice of Dominos cheese pizza?

As a nutrition geek, I love walking into a Starbucks and seeing nutritional information on display. Yet, when I asked a barista whether or not this information influenced her customers’ choices, she replied “I don’t think so, we are still cranking out the frappuccinos.”.

In North America and Europe, there are major efforts underway to empower consumers to make more informed choices. Mandatory nutritional labeling at chain restaurants are one piece of the effort, another is updates to food labeling regulations (rolling out over next few years).

Yet, there is a large gap between this mission and the healthfulness of the choices that consumers make. This gap reflects in part the complexity of our decisions about what to eat, which blend mental, physical and practical factors.

This article targets another driver of this gap — a lack of understanding of how to make use of the nutritional information that is being made available to us. This gap has two underlying issues — the first is knowing what healthy looks like, and the second is knowing how to get this information from a nutritional label (or app). When read and interpreted correctly, nutritional labels can not only help you hit your nutrient targets, but also provide a powerful tool to fight against the wily ways of food manufacturers.

I encourage everyone to take these two powerful steps towards making healthier choices. They may seem daunting, but are easier than you may think, and are an investment well worth making.

Step 1: Learn what you should be aiming for in your diet.
Step 2: Pay attention to what is in the food and drinks you choose.

Call me naive, but I am optimistic that taking these steps makes it much harder to unknowingly blow a day’s worth of calories in a burrito, a day’s worth of sodium in a bowl of soup, or a weekend’s worth of sugar in a DQ blizzard.

Step 1: Know Your Nutrient Targets

Perhaps the single most impactful thing you can do to boost your food IQ is to get to know your nutrient targets. The answers will be different for you, your spouse, and your children.

Food labels attempt to address this by providing not only absolute amounts of nutrients but also the %RDA (percent of your Recommended Daily Allowance) for some nutrients. However, the %RDA is only accurate when your needs match those of the average person. For example, the calorie RDA is based on an ‘average’ daily target of 2,000 calories (for an adult man-woman hybrid!). In reality, a small woman could need as few as 1,500 calories and a large, active man may need 3,000 calories. It’s worth doing some digging to get to know your target so you can make your own calculations.

When it comes to children, all bets are off when it comes to using the adult %RDA. The nutritional needs of children are distinct from those of adults and change from year-to-year. Each nutrient needs to be examined separately for each age.

To educate yourself on your targets, try starting with your national guidelines. While these are imperfect, and can be cumbersome to navigate, they provide a valuable rough guide. When you get super geeky, like yours truly, you can begin to dig deeper into the nutrients that interest you using other sources.

Step 2: Know Exactly What You Are Eating

Navigating the cereal isle isn’t easy!

Consider these two strategies, or a blend of both, to put the knowledge of your nutrient goals into practice:

1. Old School: Flip the Box

I encourage everyone to make a habit of pausing to read labels. It can be very illuminating if you know what to make of them, and can help you fall prey to clever marketing strategies.

For basic label literacy, check out resources in my Appendix. To take it to the next level, watch out for these two common marketing tricks:

Trick 1: The selective marquee. Food manufacturers are excellent at highlighting ‘hot’ nutrients while brushing under the carpet those that are not so desirable.

Which is healthier? Original Cheerios or Multigrain Cheerios. depends on which side of the box you look at!

Consider shopping for Cheerios. Based on the front of the box, one could easily assume that Multigrain Cheerios are a healthier choice than Original Cheerios. However, the opposite is true. Original Cheerios have just as much fiber (3 grams) but far less sugar per serving (1 gram versus 6 grams). This is reflected in their superior carbohydrate to fiber ratio (read more about this here).

Trick 2: Unrealistic portion sizes. Take this Naked Green Machine Smoothie for example:

Green machine smoothie pre-and-post labeling changes

It’s all too common for a product to provide nutritional information for a much smaller serving than what we normally consume. Consider this pre-packaged Naked Smoothie. In Canada, the label reads 140 calories and 28 grams of sugar per ‘serving’. Yet, a serving is 250 ml, whereas the bottle has 450 ml — which suggests that the bottle has 1.8 ‘servings’. The full bottle contains 270 calories (140 x 1.8) and 50 grams of sugar (28 x 1.8). Fiber is easy: zero x 1.8 is still zero!

Thankfully, within a few years, this trick should be ancient history. Updated labeling requirements, rolled out in some places already, require more reasonable serving sizes as well as standardization among similar products. The label on the pictured bottle reflects this mandatory change, which has not taken effect in Canada. The change mandates manufacturers to give information for the full bottle in products that are clearly intended as single servings (see the 270 calories in bottom right).

To learn about nutrition label regulations and brush up on nutrition label literacy, see the Appendix.

2. New School: Go Digital

Screenshots from MyFitnessPal synched with Apple HealthKit

Nutritional tracking apps are fabulous tools for boosting your food IQ. They not only give you information on foods that don’t come with a label (such as when dining out), but also make it easy to keep a daily tally, and analyze your week or day for nutrient gaps.

Chain restaurants are required to provide nutritional information, which you can get in person or through an app. For non-chain restaurants, simply look for a similar dish at a chain restaurant.

My favourite nutrition tracking app is My Fitness Pal, because of its large database and ease of use. It shows you not only grams but percent of calories from each macronutrient (fat, protein, carbohydrates). Look for entries that are validated (check mark) and complete.

Tip: Don’t be shy about DIY! Entering and saving your own recipes is easy.

“row of vegetables placed on multilayered display fridge” by Scott Warman on Unsplash

Closing Thoughts

As a health writer, this article is somewhat ironic, because most of the healthiest foods don’t come with nutrition labels. If we followed the classic advice to “eat real food, not too much”, and to “eat the rainbow”, there is a good chance we would meet our nutritional goals without trying.

Unfortunately, many of us live with practical constraints that make this challenging. We may find ourselves, all too often, debating the indulgences at Starbucks, or staring at the dazzling selection of breakfast cereals, trying to find one that our kids will eat, but isn’t essentially a large box of candy. Having imperfect choices shouldn’t stop you from making your best possible choice.

Knowing your nutritional goals and how to make sense of nutritional information are two powerful steps you can take towards making healthier choices. The final step is up to you — putting this information into practice. Your body, and your children’s bodies, will thank you. Food manufacturers may not…

My mission is to give people the information and tools they need to become smarter, healthier consumers. I hope you’ll prove me right in my belief that this information, truly helps you make healthier choices! Learn more at Fueledbyscience.com

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Appendix

Understanding food labels

Food labeling regulations