Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

We are what we eat

The U.S. has updated food labels. Where are ours?

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Last week First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled America's new nutrition label — the first makeover since the label was introduced in some 20 years. The familiar long, narrow black and white "fact" chart found on processed food packaging south of the border, and here in Canada, tells you things like how many calories and how much vitamin B or saturated fats are in each serving, and what serving size the figures are based on.

The whole idea behind the new label, said a Food and Drug Administration spokesperson, was not to tell consumers what to eat, but to give them "tools and accurate information" to make good choices. And while it may seem disappointingly similar to the old label, first glances can be deceiving according to a report in the Washington Post.

"The new label still retains the minimalist black-and-white, two-column look that designers have praised over the years, and it highlights many of the same categories, such as cholesterol and sodium," writes Ariana Eunjang Cha. "But this is where it might get confusing: Even though it doesn't look all that different, some categories are now emphasized more than others, and the way some numbers are calculated has changed."

A couple of the more substantial changes definitely caught my attention. To start, in a kind of serendipitous symmetry, a completely new category has been listed for added sugars. This was something the sugar industry fought back on, saying the change was not "scientifically justifiable" according to the Post. But the FDA disagreed, and I'm glad they did.

I think one of the hardest things for consumers to sort through regarding healthy eating is distinguishing added sugars, such as glucose or corn syrup solids, from naturally occurring sugars like lactose and even glucose. In this case, lactose contains glucose as well as galactose, another class of natural sugar.

At risk of you thinking we're "ice cream" freaks at our house (I use the term "ice cream" loosely here, although not the term "freaks"), right now I'm looking at three different nutrition labels on products straight from our freezer — Lucia Gelato's Salted Caramel, Coconut Bliss's Naked Coconut and Häagen-Dazs' Vanilla Bean.

The first has 18 grams of sugar, the second 12g, and the third a whopping 26g, all in half-cup or 125-ml servings. But none of us have any idea how much sugar has been added in its various forms, from agave syrup to glucose syrup to dextrose and just plain sugar, to these or any products, and how much is naturally occurring sugar.

Coconut milk, for instance has no naturally occurring sugar, while cream, concentrated skim milk and whole milk have quite a bit, which no doubt accounts, at least in part, for the higher amount of "sugars" in the Lucia Gelato and Häagen-Dazs.

So U.S. consumers have a great new information tool. But in Canada we still have no way to sort through this dilemma, despite the fact that health agencies consistently warn us about added sugars for good reason. The Heart and Stroke Foundation, for instance, says to limit added sugars to 10 per cent of our daily caloric intake, or about 48g or 12 teaspoons of added sugar for the average 2,000-calories-per-day diet, to avoid heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, cancer and cavities. Good luck to us all on that one.

However, before you give up on ice cream in whatever form to avoid added sugar, note that one can of pop contains, on average, 40g or 10 teaspoons of added sugar, or 85 per cent of the Heart and Stroke Foundation's recommended limit.

Another improvement in America's labels is that actual amounts are now declared along with percentages. So you know when you're getting, say, 45 per cent of your daily iron in something, that's eight milligrams of iron — a big help if you need more information beyond percentiles based on averages.

This brings us round to the other big change with U.S. nutrition labels that grabbed me — the concept of serving sizes themselves.

The new serving sizes on U.S. labels reflect what people actually eat, not what the food manufacturers consider to be a serving size. In most cases these are now much larger, say, a few potato chips vs. an entire bag of chips.

It was a tough decision. Servings sizes influence our judgment, and some scientists and advocacy groups were concerned the new larger portions will encourage people to eat more. For instance, you could look at the serving size and think, 'oh, three cookies are listed as the serving size, I'll eat three instead of just the one I originally intended to eat.' But the FDA held its ground, saying that people should base decisions on what they actually eat in an average serving, not what they hope or the cookie company thinks they eat.

For years, I've wanted improvements to our nutrition labels in Canada. They've been mandatory here since 2003, so a makeover is long overdue and, as good as the U.S. improvements are, I think Health Canada can go a lot further. For starters, I'm lactose intolerant and would love to see lactose quantities indicated so I can judge accordingly.

Do you have any thoughts on what you'd like to see on nutrition labels? If so, fire me an email at gbartosh@telus.net and I'll share your comments in a future column. After all, good info is your best tool in any endeavour.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who honestly enjoys reading and comparing nutrition labels.

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