Notes From a Registered Dietitian: Helping Newcomers Make Healthier Choices at the Grocery Store

Image says "Join the movement. Bike. Walk. Play. activeto.caIn my practice as a Registered Dietitian at Toronto Public Health, I have heard many newcomers tell me that they get overwhelmed by the huge number of choices at the grocery store. Think about the last time you went down the cereal aisle. How many different cereals were there? What are the factors you considered in making your choice? Did you read the fine print? Was it just based on the price tag? Or did the cartoon characters or other pictures convince you (or your child) to pick them?

Helping your learners interpret the fine print on nutrition labels can make the world of difference. This works best when you are comparing similar products, like different brands of bread or tomato sauce.

Know Your Ingredients

When I facilitate a session on label reading, I always start with the ingredients list. Ingredients are always listed from the most to the least by weight. That means, if your fruit drink’s ingredients are “water, sugar (glucose/fructose), concentrated juice”, then there is more sugar than juice in the product, despite the pretty pictures of fruit on the carton. You can also tell your learners that looking at the ingredients can ensure that they are picking products that are appropriate, especially if they have a food allergy or a specific food restriction.

Some of the words in the ingredients can also sound scary for many people, but aren’t harmful. For example, ascorbic acid is really just vitamin C. Health Canada regulates food additives to ensure safety. However, cooking with fresh food from scratch is always the best way to minimize food additives. You and your learners can read more about food additives on the Eat Right Ontario website.

Start with the Basics

There is often a lot of confusion on the Nutrition Facts table, but I find it helpful to start with the basics with my learners. First I always explain the serving size. This is the amount of food that the nutrition information is based on. The serving sizes between similar products (e.g. two different breads) may not be the same, so always check when you are comparing products. Also, the listed serving size may not be the amount you will actually eat. I have seen cans of sugary drinks with 3 servings in one can. Does anyone open a canned drink and only drink a third?

Learners also need help figuring out what the nutrients are and what to look for. Eat Right Ontario has some great videos that explain each of the 13 nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts table. %Daily Value (%DV) also gets confusing for learners. Most people believe that the %DV is based on what they need in a day, but since nutrient needs vary by age, gender, body size, and activity level, the %DV may not reflect their individual needs. As a general rule, less than 5% DV means there is only a little of the nutrient and 15% DV or more means there is a lot of the nutrient in the product.

How to Make It Tangible for Learners

The best way to introduce these concepts to learners is to bring in nutrition labels from common foods and have learners compare two or more similar products. For example, try comparing different tomato-based products such as ketchup, unsalted canned tomatoes, pasta sauce, canned pasta with tomato sauce, and tomato based soups. You can really help learners see the differences and find out which products are more processed.  I also find it helpful to have a discussion on what might be healthier alternatives that they may make at home.  If your class is near a grocery store, see if they provide grocery store tours. Often there are Registered Dietitians at the store who can tailor a tour to meet the needs of your learners. Who knows? You may help your learner to find a new way of preparing food or shed light on some of the products on store shelves that seemed so healthy but really aren’t.

Looking for More Ideas?

Contact Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 to request a consultation with the Public Health Nurse working in your Toronto neighbourhood. There are also curriculum supports available including lesson plans and resource tools available at this link:

Post written by Toronto Public Health


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