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How to Read Food Labels

Research shows that dietary interventions can help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence as well as improve survival and prognosis. Dietary interventions and support are therefore a key element to an individualized naturopathic treatment plan however we find that many of our patients at the CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre find it challenging to choose healthy packaged foods because of confusing food labels. By reading and understanding food labels, you are better informed to make healthy choices.

On any food label, you want to look for the Ingredient List and the Nutrition Facts:

Ingredient List

            The ingredients list items from largest to smallest weight, which should be kept in mind when choosing your groceries. A key consideration when analyzing the ingredients of a food product revolve around sugars and salts, which should be avoided in many cases. Both are often listed under different names in the ingredient list, such as corn syrup for sugar (or any item ending in “-ose”) and disodium phosphate for salt.

The longer the ingredient list, the more processed it usually is and the general rule is that there should be no more than 5 ingredients. Diets high in processed foods have been linked to obesity, which has been shown to increase the risk of cancer recurrence and should be avoided. Some other signs that hint towards a food item being more processed is the presence of food additives, which are usually longer unfamiliar chemical names, such as sodium benzoate, monoglycerides, guar gum and dyes such as artificial FD&C Yellow No. 6.9. If you cannot pronounce it and do not know what it is, you should likely avoid it.

The ingredient list is also important if you have specific food allergies or sensitivities, and are looking to avoid those foods that can lead to inflammation. It is critical to know which ingredients may or may not cause inflammation as increased inflammation from food could increase the risk of cancer recurrence.

Nutrition Facts

This table provides specific nutrient content. Firstly, pay attention to the serving size as one cup is very different in comparison to one tablespoon. It is easy to be fooled by the carbohydrate amount, for example, if the serving size listed is less than the average serving that would be consumed. Secondly, calories are usually at the top of the table and are important to pay attention to as some of our dietary interventions can include changing overall calorie content.

Macronutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrates) are usually next on the table and are important as many dietary interventions include specific individualized macronutrient recommendations (e.g. increasing protein and fat and decreasing carbohydrates). A good example here are bars labelled as “protein bars” which contain more sugar (carbohydrates) than protein, and so should more accurately be labelled as “sugar bars”. Macronutrients are listed in both grams and as a percentage (% DV). The % DV is the percentage of the daily value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. These are reference amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day. This helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. A general rule is that 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low and 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high.

Saturated and trans fats are usually specified as well, which are important to avoid as they have been linked to increased risk of cancer, and so you want to choose foods that have 5% DV or less of these items.

Carbohydrates are further broken down into fibre and sugar. Many of our dietary recommendations include increasing fibre and decreasing sugar, therefore this should also be looked out for when reading a food label. Aim to choose items with 20% DV or more of fiber and 5% DV or less of sugar.

Today, many of us are now ordering groceries online and food labels may not be as readily available compared to being in-store. In this case, we recommend utilizing online resources and searching online for that food label, so that you are fully informed of the nutrition content of what you are ordering. Reading food labels does get easier with time and we hope this helps map out what you should be looking for.

Author: Erica Eckstrand, CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre intern


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