There once was a time when food was simpler.  An apple was an apple, milk was milk, and an egg was an egg.  But with the invention of refined and processed foods, we often don’t know what we’re really getting nutritionally.

That’s where food labels come in handy. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency mandate that all prepackaged foods are labeled with nutritional information. Nutritional labels are found on the outside of packaged food products and list the amount of calories, nutrients, protein, sodium, fat, and carbohydrates found in a serving.  A study from Montefiore Children’s Hospital in New York suggests that over 60 percent of parents surveyed use food labels when they are buying food products.  The problem is, parents say, that reading food labels can be time consuming while shopping, especially when you have kids in tow, and sometimes the information on the labels can be confusing. But a food expert says learning how to decipher those food labels may help you and your family eat healthier.

“Considering the number of convenience food products on the shelf, and the shortage of time that we have to prepare food from scratch, we need to know what we’re purchasing, or we could be inadvertently sending kids down a very unhealthy path,” says Rosie Schwartz, dietitian and author of “The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide”.  She says that knowing what information to seek out on food labels can help you and your family move towards a healthier lifestyle.

Schwartz says that while food labels can be confusing and not up to date, they’re still one of the best tools to help identify what you are putting into your body.

“Ingredient lists only give you part of the picture.  On an ingredient list, sugar may be called sucrose, fructose, glucose, corn syrup—sometimes an ingredient list doesn’t clearly tell you in plain language what’s in that food,” says Schwartz.  “But using an ingredient list combined with the nutritional values on the label can provide useful information.”

Key information to look for on a nutritional label is the serving size, and the number of calories in that serving.  Have you ever split a chicken pot pie with someone? By reading the label, you may be surprised to learn that a seemingly single serving is actually supposed to be two or more servings.  Eating the whole thing means that you can really overdo it on the calories and fat.

“However, serving sizes are not standardized across the food industry,” warns Schwartz. “When comparing foods, make sure you break down the serving sizes into equivalent portions so you are comparing apples to apples. “

The fat content of food is important to know—as a diet high in certain fats can lead to a number of health problems. There are many different kinds of dietary fat, and not all are unhealthy.  Fats are a great source of energy. We all need some fat in our diet, but fats are very calorie-dense - they contain about 9 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram.  Choose foods that are low in saturated or trans-fat.

“By looking at the amount of fat, and cross-referencing it with the ingredient list, you can see whether the fat contained in a food is the healthy kind of fat,” says Schwartz.  “If the ingredient list has vegetable sources of fat, like olive oil or sunflower oil, these are better than say hydrogenated or animal fats.”

The sugar content of food is also of concern to parents, as diets high in sugar can cause obesity and the health risks that go along with it. But like fat, not all sugar is to be vilified.  By comparing the ingredient list with the amount of sugar, you can see if the sugar content comes from natural sugar or added sugar. 

“If the sugar in a cereal is derived from dried fruit, then there is less to be concerned about than a cereal that has high-fructose corn syrup added as a sweetener,” says Schwartz.

Sodium is another concern for Canadians.  Excess consumption of salt, which contains sodium, can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.  Some canned and pre-packaged foods contain very high amounts of salt.  Sodium intake should be kept to a minimum.

Nutritional labels also often contain the amount of vitamins and minerals.  Choosing foods that are high in nutrients will fuel you longer, and make your body work at its best. Particularly, parents should be choosing foods that are high in calcium and iron for growing kids. Schwartz advises Canadians to be careful when looking at the daily values that are outlined on food labels.

“Daily Values are often outdated and inaccurate,” she cautions. “The recommended  percent daily values  are based on a 2,000 calorie diet which is a very generic number that doesn’t apply to everyone.  Also, recommended values of sodium listed on labels are much higher than what experts actually recommend, and values of nutrients like Vitamin D are lower than what the experts recommend.”

Reading food labels can give you a good sense of what you are putting into your body, but arming yourself with other information like the ingredient list and the accurate and up to date recommended daily values can further improve your family’s health.