Have you noticed that the nutrition labels in Canada have quietly been getting a makeover?
Health Canada announced several changes back on December 14, 2016, with a five-year window for the food industry to adjust. I thought the deadline was coming up, but it turns out that manufacturers were given a one-year grace period due to the pandemic, so you’ll still see some old labels for a while.
Nonetheless, most of the foods in my kitchen now have the new one, so I decided to write something about what it all means for people with heart concerns.
Some of the changes help make the labels easier to read, and make it easier to compare similar foods, by requiring more consistent, realistic portion sizes. Health Canada explains it all here, but the three most relevant changes for heart health are:
1. Potassium is now required
For most of us, eating more foods rich in potassium is a good thing. It can help keep blood pressure down, somewhat countering the effects of all the sodium in our food supply.
(It comes mostly from plant foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, as well as milk products… and chocolate!)
However, people on certain heart medications or with waning kidney function may actually need to avoid eating too much potassium, so if your doctor has told you to do that, this change to the labels will make it easier.
(And talk to a dietitian if you want more detailed help there.)
One potassium caveat: It’s plentiful in fresh fruit and vegetables, which usually have no labels. Here’s a good list if potassium is important to you.
2. There’s a percent for sugar now!
What does sugar have to do with heart health? Excess sugar is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even high cholesterol.
And for a long time, we had no Percent Daily Value (% DV) for the sugar line – just the weight in grams. That’s fine if you read a lot of labels, but for the average consumer, those numbers don’t mean a lot.
Now we have a % DV for sugar!
(The % DV tells us how much of that nutrient is provided by a serving of the food compared to the needs of a typical adult. Sort of. It’s complicated. Rather than get worked up about the exact daily values, think of them as a yardstick. As the new labels are required to say, “5% or less is a little, 15% or more is a lot.”)
Back when this was proposed, health professionals argued it should reflect just “added” sugars, as it does in the United States, but Health Canada went with all of the sugars.
That’s okay, except don’t get too worried about a bit of sugar in whole, minimally processed fruit, like these blueberries, or plain milk or yogurt. Those foods come packaged with so much nutrition that we don’t really worry about the sugar, within reason. (See these statements from both Heart & Stroke Foundation and Diabetes Canada.)
For most foods though – juice, cereal, granola bars, yogurt, etc — hunting for 5% or lower sugar foods and going easy on the 15% or higher products can help. A little isn’t a big deal…. it’s excess sugar that might set you up for future health problems.
3. Sugars are now lumped together in the ingredient list.
On a related note, manufacturers can no longer hide sugars in the ingredients list like this granola in the old label format:
In the new format, those four types of sugar will be combined into one item on the list: “Sugars (raw cane sugar invert syrup, tapioca syrup, cane sugar)”. Since the ingredients list is sorted by weight, the new “sugars” item will be close to the top.
This change just makes the sugar in a food more obvious to anyone perusing the ingredients list. To know how much, your best bet is still still the nutrition facts table.
Knowledge is power
While we’re on the topic, what other questions do you have about interpreting nutrition labels? I realized I’ve never done a basic post about label-reading for heart health.
Ask your questions in our free Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Cooking Club on Facebook and I’ll answer them. (Feel free to join us if you’re not yet a member.)
While it doesn’t help to obsess over individual nutrients on a food label, they can help make it easier for you to make decisions about what to buy, if you know what to look for. You don’t always have to buy the “healthiest” food, but it is your right to know.