Food labels contain three sources of information: the Nutrition Facts table, the ingredient list, and health claims.
Ingredient List - In addition to looking at the nutrition facts table, check the ingredient list to get a clear picture of what you will be eating. Ingredients are listed by weight, from the highest to the lowest. Use this list if you want to avoid certain ingredients because of allergies, special diets or other reasons.
Health claims - Manufacturers are allowed to make a nutrition claim if their product meets criteria set by Health Canada. Claims include being low in fat, sodium free and zero trans fat. Remember that these claims refer to one serving of food. If you devour the whole box of low-fat cookies, your snack will not be low in fat after all!
When comparing products, focus on nutrients that are important to you.
If you ever have any questions about the ingredients in a product, company contact information can be found on most food labels.
Nutrition Facts Table - Every package of food you buy shows this table in the same standard format. It contains information on calories and 13 key nutrients in a product. It also includes details on serving size, calories, carbohydrate, sugars and fibre, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.
Calories - The number of calories tells you how much energy is in one serving of food.
Fat - The fat listed on the nutrition label is the combined total amount of all types of fat. Unhealthy saturated and trans fats are named because they are linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Just because a food is low in saturated and trans fat does not mean it is good for you! Even if a product is high in healthy fats, it is still high in calories.
Any type of fat has nine calories per gram. Look for products that have less than 20% DV of total fat. When looking at unhealthy saturated and trans fats, keep that percentage at no more than 10% DV. For a 2000-calorie diet, that means no more than 22 grams of saturated plus trans fat per day. This is calculated as: 1 gram of fat = 9 calories, 200 divided by 9 = 22 grams.
Cholesterol - Most people with elevated cholesterol aim to have less than 300 milligrams per day of cholesterol. Listing the % DV for cholesterol on products is optional. Since cholesterol is contained in animal foods, by reducing your saturated fat intake you automatically reduce cholesterol intake.
Sodium - The upper limit for sodium is 2300 milligrams per day. Choose products containing less than 20% DV for sodium.
Protein - Since getting enough protein is not a concern for most Canadians, no % DV is listed.
The serving size is the first thing to look at on a label. All of the information contained on the label is based on that specific amount of food. This is not a recommended amount, but simply a reference amount to show nutrient information for that particular product.
Serving size is always described in two ways. First, it is shown in familiar household units, like cups, tablespoons, or a fraction or unit of food (1/4 pizza, one slice of bread). It is also given in metric measure using grams or millilitres.
Comparing the serving sizes of different foods can be challenging. Food companies can choose a serving size amount on the label as long as it is within a given range set by Health Canada. The challenge comes when serving sizes of products you compare are different. When you buy bread, some labels list a serving size as one slice, while others list it as two slices. Health Canada regulates the reference for bread at 50 grams, and allows the range to fall between 25 and 70 grams. Manufacturers do not display fractions (such as 11/2 slices) even if that is the correct reference amount of 50 grams. Instead, the label shows a serving size of one slice or two slices of bread, followed by a metric weight within the range of 25 to 70 grams.
When comparing two types of crackers, you may see that two crackers of one kind weigh 20 grams and two crackers of another kind weigh 30 grams. Food manufacturers may choose a serving size in the range of 15 to 30 grams to avoid listing a serving size as 21/2 crackers.
Another thing to remember is that you must compare the specific amount of food in the serving size to the amount you actually eat. What you consider to be one serving may not be the serving listed on the label. For instance, a bagel or bottle of juice may seem like one serving to you but actually be two. If the serving size is listed as one cup and you have two, you must double the calories and all the amounts for the 13 nutrients listed on the label.
Using the percent Daily Value (% DV) is simple – check it to see if a food has a little or a lot of a nutrient. Percentages are based on recommendations for healthy eating. Each nutrient is measured on a scale of one to 100 per cent so you can compare products. For instance, milk has high % DVs in calcium and vitamin D, and 0% DV for vitamin C. Orange juice has a high % DV of vitamin C, but 0% DV for iron.
The % DV estimates the percentage of a nutrient in one serving in a typical, healthy 2000-calorie diet. A food that provides 30 per cent of the daily requirement for fibre means you still need to get another 70 per cent sometime during the day.
The % DV applies to everyone. Whether you are male or female, a child or an adult, you can use the % DV as a reference point. You do not need to know your nutrient requirements. For instance, if you are concerned about your teen-aged daughter’s calcium intake, buy the yogurt with a 15% DV of calcium rather than the one with only 5% DV. Foods high in fat and sodium show up as more than 20% DV. These are not good choices for anyone in your family, including your children.
What happens when you compare similar products that do not have the same serving size? Let’s say that you are reading the labels on two packages of cereal to see which one has more fibre. Cereal A has a serving size of one cup and cereal B has a smaller serving size of 3/4 cup. Looking at the fibre listing, you see that cereal A has 4% DV, while cereal B has 20% DV. Even if the serving sizes of the two products are not exact, cereal B is the higher fibre choice.
To choose healthier foods, select those with less than 20% DV of fat, saturated and trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. As well, choose foods with more than 20% DV of fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
Carbohydrates, fibre, and sugars - These are all included in the total carbohydrate amount. There are no accepted guidelines that easily apply to all people for total carbohydrates and sugars, so you will not see % DV listed.
You will, however, see grams and % DV for fibre. Most of us need to eat more fibre. Women need 25 grams, and men 38 grams each day.