How to read a food label Print

Understanding ingredient lists, the nutrition facts table and nutrient content & health claims

After a 20-year struggle to lose weight, Marjorie was diagnosed with diabetes. Despite attending a group diabetes education session, she found it hard to put the dietary theory into practice, and so her doctor referred her for customized one-on-one advice.

Marjorie was encountering two key issues. The first was how much carbohydrate to consume at a meal without causing her blood sugars to soar. The second was how to read a label and interpret the list of numbers and words displayed on a food package.

Understanding what is relevant on a food label for your own unique nutrition needs is a key step in managing your health. But that’s hard to do, thanks to marketing messages, a long list of numbers to decipher and complex scientific words in the ingredient list.

A 2006 article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Russell Rothman and colleagues found that label reading is confusing for a large number of people. In fact, only 37 per cent of people could calculate the number of carbohydrates in a 20-ounce bottle that contained two-and-a-half servings.

To help guide you through a typical label, here are the three major parts of a food label that reveal ingredients, nutrition facts and health claims.

Ingredient lists

Ingredient lists are labelled from the ingredient with the highest weight to the ingredient with the lowest. In other words, what you see listed first makes up more of the foods, while ingredients listed at the end make up the least.

If the words that make up the list are too complicated for a child to read, this might be a sign you should eat less of this particular food.

Ingredient lists are particularly important if you have a food allergy or food intolerance, or are trying to avoid a certain ingredient.

Nutrition facts table

The nutrition facts table displays a chart of 13 key nutrients. While there are exceptions for some medical issues, most people can benefit from more fibre, vitamin A, calcium, iron and vitamin C as well as less saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

If you are trying to lose weight, the single most important thing for you to examine on a food label is the calories. Be sure to note the serving size and compare this to the amount you plan on eating (which is often several servings).

The % Daily Value (% DV) tells you if a food is a high or low source of a nutrient. For example, if a food supplies you with a 27% DV for carbohydrate, this means it supplies about one-quarter of your daily requirements for carbohydrates based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Keep in mind, if you need less or more than the 2,000 calories used as a standard or, alternatively, have a medical concern such as anemia or osteoporosis, the goals for % DV are different for you.

The % DV is based on an adult male; if you are female, pregnant, breastfeeding, an older adult or a child, the % DV is also different. This might make you question the value of the information the % DV provides, but its primary purpose is to vaguely help you gauge if such items as the milligrams of calcium or grams of dietary fibre are high or low. As such, it can still be a useful guide, even if it is not exact.

Nutrient content claims and health claims

To ensure consistent and accurate information for the public, Health Canada provides rules for the use of nutrient content claims — such as “excellent source of calcium,” “low-sodium” or “trans-fat free” — to ensure consistent messaging.

This is also the case for health claims such as “a diet low in saturated and trans fats reduces the risk of heart disease.”

Many words, such as “healthy choice” or “good for you,” as well as symbols and logos, can be used without any restriction and are developed by savvy marketers to increase sales.

For more information about sorting out the differences between health claims and marketing claims, visit the nutrition labelling section of the Health Canada website or book an appointment with a registered dietitian (often covered by employer health benefits).

LABEL QUIZ

Questions

If you eat the entire package of this food:

1. How many calories would you be consuming?

2. How many grams of carbohydrates would you be eating?

3. What would your % Daily Value for carbohydrates be?

Answers

1. 350 calories

2. 85 grams

3. 27%

Common slip-ups

  • Not realizing the data displayed is for only part of this package, not the full package
  • Incorrect math calculations

About Andrea Holwegner

CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker

Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more

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Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
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