How to read the nutrition label

10 tricks to understanding food labels

10 tricks to understanding food labels

Have you ever found yourself trying to compare the nutritional values of two products to choose the smartest one? Of course you have! We’re all watching our diets more and more and want to choose what’s best for our health, but it’s not always easy getting there.

Food Label

This article will help you quickly decipher food labels and understand the most important points. Changes to the potential new regulations issued by the Canadian government will also be addressed. Let’s take a look!

1. At first glance: Check the serving size


At the top of the Nutrition Facts table, you’ll see the serving size, meaning the serving size associated with the nutritional values in the table. It’s not always the usual serving size that is consumed. Therefore, you should make a few calculations to get the nutritional value of your consumption. As well, the current law allows a large variation between some products within the same category, so two similar products can have completely different serving sizes.

In practice: For two crackers that are similar, the serving size indicated could be from 28 g in one case to 36 g in the other. To compare these two products, you have to do a little mental math to get the cross product.

2. Calories: Energy!

The second element to look at is found under the serving size. It’s the total number of calories the serving size provides. For example, a serving size of half a cup (85 g) can provide 25 calories. The energy from that is a combination of lipids, protein and carbohydrates.

Several factors influence the number of calories that everyone needs including: age, sex and level of physical activity. It’s estimated that an average adult should consume about 2,000 kcal per day.

In practice: You have to be conscious of the serving size you consume in relation to the serving size indicated. The number of calories will definitely vary!

3. The Percent daily value (% DV): A really practical tool

This percentage is found at the top right of the table and will become a valuable tool to you. It shows if a serving contains few or many nutritional elements. Some nutrients don’t have a percent daily value (% DV) associated with it as the Canadian population generally consumes enough of it. If the percentage indicated is less than 5%, it’s considered low. If it’s more than 15%, it’s considered high. Here are the desired nutrients:

…to decrease
…to increase
Saturated fatVitamin A
Trans fatCalcium


Always have this drawing in mind. It’ll help you make informed decisions.

Daily value

Photo: Government of Canada

4. Lipids: In moderation


Commonly called fat, lipids are essential nutrients that give us energy and have several functions in our body. The lipid family has several elements, starting with saturated fat and trans fat. These fats are often considered bad fat because they contribute to cardiovascular disease. They come from both animal and plant food and are often solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fat (mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated) are mostly present in plant food, notably olive and canola oils. Poly-unsaturated fat is known to lower bad cholesterol in blood. It’s best to limit the amount of lipids you consume.

In practice: In terms of lipids, make sure to have a product that doesn’t contain trans fat. As well, saturated fat have to be consumed in small quantities, so try to choose products that have less than 15% DV.

5. Sodium: Just a dash!


Sodium is an element that is present in table salt. You have to keep an eye on it especially in processed food. Canadians shouldn’t consume more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, but most of us tend to bust that max. Sodium is responsible for contributing to hypertension, one of the main causes of stroke, heart and kidney disease. That’s why it’s really important to watch your sodium intake as it can increase quickly from eating processed food.

In practice: As sodium should be limited in your diet, always opt for products that have a very low percent daily value. It’s an excellent indicator that lets you know if the product has a reasonable amount of sodium.

6. Carbohydrates: Tell the difference


The carbohydrate family also has different components like starch, fiber and sugar. Fiber doesn’t have any calories, but it does have many health benefits for the body. Among other things, it plays a protective role against cardiovascular disease and cancer. Fiber controls weight and regulates diabetes. It also improves intestinal health.

Sugar and starch provide a large amount of the body’s energy. Until now, sugar hasn’t been addressed specifically. As part of the new regulatory framework, it will be attributed a percent daily value because experts believe that sugar can cause obesity. Starch isn’t mandatory on the label, so it’s rarely present.

In practice: We don’t consume enough dietary fiber in our society. That’s why when comparing two products, it’s smart to choose the product with the most fiber. The % DV is again a valuable tool to use. When the percentage is above 15%, it means that the product contains a significant amount of fiber.

7. Protein: The Art of Feeling Full


Protein provides the basis for building our body: cells, hormones, skin and nails. It’s essential to our functioning and also plays an important role in controlling hunger. As protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and lipids, it allows us to maintain a long-term flow of energy that, in turn, helps us get to the next meal without feeling famished. Protein is found in animal food (ex. meat, poultry, fish, cheese) and plant food (ex. nuts, legumes). Note that on average, Canadians consume enough protein.

In practice: In general, we consume enough protein every day, so it’s not essential to choose products that contain large amounts. However, if you’re in the ready-to-eat section, always take a peek at the amount of protein. For a meal to maintain and sustain you, it should always have at least 15 g of protein. Just a little tip to remember!

8. Vitamins and minerals: Valuable allies


On the label, there are 13 nutrients that must appear. The others are optional. They were chosen by health and science professionals because they’re considered important for our health. For example, calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin D must be present.

In practice: The percent daily value is an excellent indicator here as well. Read it to see if your product contains vitamins and minerals or not. The more there are, the better it is!

9. List of ingredients: Don’t ignore it!

list of ingredients

The list of ingredients is also mandatory on all food labels. It indicates all of the ingredients that the product contains in order of decreasing quantity. For example, for a loaf of bread, flour is first, followed usually by water. Therefore, it’s essential to read the list carefully to spot a particular ingredient to ensure that the product you buy or consume doesn’t have allergens.

In practice: You should always look at the list. People who have food allergies are used to doing that. Do the same to avoid food that isn’t good for your health like modified and hydrogenated oils, and food additives. Short ingredient lists are always an excellent way to ensure that the product you’re considering isn’t too processed.

10. Nutrition claims: Reliable indications

Health claims

Other nutrition claims like “source of iron” or “very high source of fiber” can also be found on food products. For them to be truthful and not misleading, these claims are the subject of very precise rules issued by Health Canada. They are, however, optional.

In practice: It would be interesting to focus on health claims more, especially because they have to be compliant, but don’t just read the claims.

Potential new regulation

In the summer of 2015, there was talk about several new elements on the new food labelling regulation, but it seems like things haven’t advanced since and no date has been set for when a new law might take effect.

The guidelines for the proposed changes start by standardizing serving sizes. This means that for the same group of food (sliced bread, for example), a fixed serving size will be imposed. Calories will be emphasized even more and we’ll be able to differentiate saturated fat and trans fat. There would also want greater emphasis to indicate whether sugar has been added or if it comes from natural food as is the case for fruit or dairy products. As for sugar, the latter would be associated to a percent daily value.

Vitamins A and C, which don’t pose a deficit problem for the population, would disappear from the table to make room for vitamin D and potassium which are more problematic. An explanatory note about the efficient use of the percent daily value would also be applied to packaging. Finally, to make the list of ingredients easier to read, all sugar (for example, sugar, molasses, honey) that could be measured would be regrouped under the term “sugar”.

These improvements are interesting and make sense, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be adopted. Do you have any tips on how to compare the nutrition tables of two products?

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