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Read the Label

Make healthy food choices


Read the Label

Do you automatically assume that granola or frozen yogurt is healthy? Learn how to read the label to make healthy food choices.

If you’re trying to eat clean, some products that you consider healthy may not be as healthy as you think. Before you go food shopping, be sure that the selections you make are, indeed, healthy ones.

“Health food … is very broad,” warns Dr. Courtney Pinard, a Canadian research scientist at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, “and can range from very specific gimmicky products to foods that are actually healthy and beneficial.”

To help ensure the foods you choose are healthy options, we asked doctors, dietitians, and nutrition professionals to highlight what we should look for as we navigate health food store aisles.

Veggie chips

“There are a variety of these fried snacks made from veggies such as squash, sweet potato, et cetera,” says Tristaca Caldwell, a registered dietitian in Halifax. “They are marketed as a healthy alternative to potato chips, but often have just as many calories, sodium, and fat as potato chips.”

But you don’t need to give them up completely. “These veggie chips should be treated the same as potato chips in our diet: sparingly for enjoyment, not regularly consumed,” recommends Caldwell.

Healthy alternative: Try savoury snacks such as edamame or kale chips. Check the fat and sodium content of all processed snacks, and avoid trans fats.


Granola is often jokingly associated with hippies, but nothing’s hip about many commercial granola mixes. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that granola is a healthy food,” says personal trainer Adria Ali. “While it’s true that it has fibre, it’s almost always loaded with excess sugar and hidden calories. A bowl of this ‘natural’ health food can pack over 500 calories … without the milk.”

Healthy alternative: Look for granolas that contain non-genetically modified whole grains and organic ingredients; are high in fibre; and are low in fat, sugar, and sodium. Moderation is key, too. “Don’t forget to follow the serving size,” Ali says.

Whole wheat foods

Most of the wheat kernel’s nutrients are in the germ. According to Health Canada regulations, manufacturers can remove 5 percent of the kernel, or approximately 70 percent of the nutritious germ, while still labelling it “whole wheat.”

Many brands also hide how much refined white flour is in their products. Researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found many whole wheat breads and baked goods were made almost entirely of refined flour.

Healthy alternative: When shopping, look for products that say “100 percent whole grain,” recommends the CSPI. Health Canada suggests checking the ingredients label—the first ingredient listed should be a whole grain.

“Healthy” drinks

“I’ve had clients who were surprised at the amount of sugar in vitamin waters because they’re called water,” says registered dietitian Stephanie Langdon of Saskatoon, “and sweetened beverages such as iced tea, since people keep hearing about the benefits of drinking tea.” She warns that bottled teas often have as much sugar as soft drinks. Additionally, a study found that many commercial, bottled teas contain few to none of the polyphenols that make tea good for you.

Equally bad are juice drinks. “Many of these products are loaded with as much high fructose corn syrup as soda,” notes Dr. Sarah Samaan, former codirector of the Women’s Cardiovascular Institute at the Baylor Heart Hospital.

Healthy alternative: Instead, enjoy filtered tap water or homemade brewed teas. When buying bottled beverages, avoid those that contain artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup. Choose pure juices or juice your own fruits and veggies at home. Before accepting marketing claims such as “100 percent natural” or “no artificial sweeteners,” read the label. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, chances are they may not all be natural.

Faux meat

In a 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers linked red meat with increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But before buying faux meat products, check the ingredient list. Many contain excess sodium, fillers, and artificial flavours.

Healthy alternative: Check the sodium and fat content of all faux meat products. Retrain your taste buds to enjoy meat alternatives made with vegetables and whole grains.

Dark chocolate

There’s a dark side to this antioxidant-rich dessert. “It often contains high amounts of added sugar or dairy,” says Laurel DiMasi, a certified nutrition counsellor. It also has 150 calories in just an ounce, plus saturated fat.

Healthy alternative: When buying your next bar, look at the ingredients; chocolate liquor or cocoa should appear first, and it should have a labelled minimum cocoa percentage of 70 percent. Chocoholics be warned: You only need 1 oz (28 g) of dark chocolate daily to experience its health benefits.

“Something”-free junk food

The category of gluten-free or dairy-free junk foods is a big issue for Hélène Charlebois, a registered dietitian in Ottawa. “Many of my clients assume that by buying these types of [baked] that they are healthier than their regularly made counterparts,” she says. “But a calorie is a calorie; eating too much of any food is not healthy.”

Healthy alternative: If you’re watching your calorie consumption, calories and carbohydrates matter more than the latest ingredient-free trend if you have no specific ingredient sensitivities. Work with a nutritionist to identify specific dietary factors that you need to avoid.

Agave nectar

Agave nectar may score lower than sugar on the glycemic index, but it’s not perfect. “It’s almost 90 percent fructose,” says Kevin Kuhn, a nutrition coach and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “It doesn’t elicit an insulin response, so it has a much higher chance of being stored as fat while contributing to insulin resistance.”

Healthy alternative: Agave nectar may be healthier than sugar in some ways, but that’s not permission to go overboard. Treat it just like any other added sweetener. “Using a little will not hurt you,” says Kuhn. Choose sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, or organic coconut palm sugar, which add sweetness and nutritional value.

Nutrition bars

The next time you need an on-the-go breakfast or gym snack, reaching for your favourite granola bar may not be ideal. “If you check the label, many are just processed mixtures of sugar, fat, and refined carbs,” warns Sharon Palmer, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012). “The nutritional lineup can be similar to a candy bar.”

Healthy alternative: Avoid granola bars that contain high amounts of sugar, fructose corn syrup, candy coatings, and preservatives. Choose a bar that contains whole food ingredients and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. If you’re looking for a meal replacement bar, make sure it has at least 5 grams of protein and at least 3 grams of fibre.

Frozen yogurt

Frozen yogurt has a healthy aura around it, especially compared to traditional high-fat, high-sugar ice cream. However, many of the perceived benefits may not actually be there. For example, the heat processing of frozen yogurt products and subsequent freezing often kills the beneficial live cultures found in regular yogurt.

Healthy alternative: The label should specify whether the frozen yogurt contains live cultures. Avoid products with excess sweeteners and high amounts of fat.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD