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How to pick the right packaged foods

The secret lies in reading the label so you can make the most informed choice for all your meals.
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Lianne Phillipson-Webb, October 21, 2013 10:49:12 AM

In an ideal world, family meals cooked from scratch are the norm. The reality is that home cooked meals happen only when it works with everyone’s schedule and packaged food creeps in two or three times a week. No harm is getting a little help right?

But do you read the label of what you pick up at the store? Although most shoppers don’t know how to make neither head nor tail of what it means, labels are incredibly informative and set apart which packaged foods make a good or not-so-good standby meal.

So just where do you start?

Ingredient list
If you want to know what the food contains, read the ingredient list. Any added ingredient to the food you are holding must be listed here. For instance, if you have unsweetened apple sauce, the ingredient list likely says apples, water, ascorbic acid. I wouldn’t expect to see sugar on the ingredient label as it’s unsweetened. Although you’ll see a percentage of sugar listed on the nutrition part (below), that’s what the apple sauce yields in terms of energy or carb, not that sugar has been added.

Nutrition label
This is where you’ll find sodium, fibre, protein, carbohydrate, sugars and other nutrients listed. It also details the serving size that’s analyzed, calories for that serving size, overall fat with a breakdown of saturated, trans fat and polyunsaturated, along with vitamins and minerals. The percentages that you see written are based on an adult consumption of 2000 kCal per day, so bear that in mind when reading a label for a child.

Shopping for packaged foods

  • Let’s say you’ve picked up a family-size frozen lasagna for dinner on Wednesday. As you scan the ingredient list, you’ll see a recipe of sorts with the most abundant ingredient at the start of the list and the least at the end. If you see sugar close to the first ingredient, it’ll contain more sugar than cheese or vegetables that are further down the list. Your best bet is the one with the shortest ingredient list and sugar and salt way at the end.
  • Most boxed cereals are a mind boggling list of ingredients. The longer the list, the more ‘stuff’ there is in there and more reason to put the box back on the shelf. In efforts to become healthier, many cereals have reduced sugar and sodium, but double check. Often what’s touted on the front of the box doesn’t always match what’s on the inside.
  • Firstly, read the ingredient list. If sugar ranks too high, put it back. If there are too many ingredients that you don’t recognize, put it back and try another. When you check the nutrition label, read the sodium count first then the calories. Adults need about 1600 mg sodium per day so if you are about to consume half with one or two servings, try another. If it contains trans fats, drop it like a hot potato. If you see high fructose corn syrup (also known as glucose/fructose), I’d be leaving that behind too.

Reading labels is a must for everyone. No matter how much packaged food you buy, knowing what’s in it is key to making a savvy food choice for the sake of you and your family. Need more incentive? According to one study female shoppers who check food labels weigh almost 4 kg less than those that don’t!


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Lianne Phillipson-Webb

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