How to Read Nutrition Labels: A Beginners Guide
Tips and Tricks to Make You Confident Reading Nutrition Labels
If you’re confused on how to read nutrition labels, you’re not alone! This blog post will walk you through step-by-step on how to read a nutrition label and feel confident grocery shopping to support your goals.
What Foods Have a Nutrition Label?
Nutrition labeling became law in Canada in 2007 for all prepackaged food products. The nutrition label is designed to share nutrition and ingredient information to help Canadians make informed food choices.
Foods that are not required to have a nutrition label are:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood
- Foods prepared or processed at the store (bakery items, sausages, salads)
- Foods that contain very few nutrients (tea, coffee, spices)
- Products sold in small packages that are not intended for resale (e.g., individual ketchup packets)
What is Included on a Food Label?
All food labels require the following, by law, to be included:
- Nutrition Facts Table
- Ingredient List
You may also find nutrition claims included but these are optional. Continue reading as we dive into each of these and how to use them.
The Nutrition Facts Table
The Nutrition Facts Table gives a more comprehensive breakdown of the nutrient profile of the food product, listing serving size, calories, macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, protein), and other nutrients of interest. Reading the Nutrition Facts Table is a great way to ensure you are making informed choices to support your health goals, determine if a product is high or low in a specific nutrient, or compare similar products.
How to Use the Nutrition Facts Table: A Step-by-Step Guide
1. Look at the Serving Size
The serving size is at the very top of the Nutrition Facts Table and all the information in the table is based on this amount. Compare this amount to the amount you actually eat. For example, if the serving size is ½ cup but you eat 1 cup, you will need to double all the amounts listed.
It is meant to reflect what a typical Canadian would consume in one sitting, however, is not meant to be a strict rule of what you “should” be eating. Keep in mind that everyone’s needs are different, and how much you eat depends on many factors like your age, activity level, hunger, personal preference, etc.
2. Take a peek at the Calories
As mentioned above, the calories are based on the serving size list. If you are eating more or less than the serving size, your caloric intake will be higher or lower than that listed.
3. Look at the % Daily Value
The % Daily Value can give you an indication of whether the food is high or low in certain nutrients.
- 15% or higher is considered a lot of a nutrient or a “high source” of that nutrient
- 5% or lower is considered a little of a nutrient or a “low source” of that nutrient
This can be helpful if you are looking for specific nutrients to support your goals. For example, if you are prioritizing more fibre in your diet, look for products that contain 15% or higher, or choose the higher % when comparing similar products. Or, if you want to be mindful of your sodium intake, aim for foods with 5% or less or choose the lower % when comparing similar products.
Generally, aim to get higher amounts of fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium and lower amounts of saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Keep in mind, that everyone’s health goals and needs are different, and this may differ from individual to individual. If you have any questions about what you personally should be looking more or less for, our team of Registered Dietitians is happy to support you in your personal goals.
4. Check out some other noteworthy nutrients.
Common questions I get asked about the Nutrient Facts Table center around protein and sugars.
“What about the protein amount?”
A question I often get asked is whether we should always be looking at protein on the nutrition label.
Protein is an important nutrient that supports a variety of body processes including bone, muscle, skin, hormone, and immune health. It also provides long-lasting energy and fullness. If you have higher protein needs or want a food product that is going to provide lasting fullness, look for the higher protein amount when comparing similar products or plan to include an alternative source of protein with that item. On the other hand, if you want a quick source of energy right before a gym workout, choosing a lower protein (and higher carbohydrate) option may be better suited as protein can slow down digestion and cause some cramping during immediate physical activity.
“What about sugars? Should I always be looking for “low” sugar?”
If you’ve wondered this, you’re not alone. This is a very common question and source of confusion when label reading.
The new label laws in Canada, effective December 15th, 2022, now require % DV to be included for sugars. As mentioned previously, this can make it easier to compare similar products and see if a product is “high” or “low” in sugars. Something to keep in mind is the sugars listed in the Nutrition Facts Table are total sugars, including all-natural sources and added sugars. Foods that contain natural sugars are fruits, starchy vegetables, dairy, grains, and starches. So, you may notice on your plain yogurt that there are some sugars listed in the Nutrition Facts Table, this is natural lactose. Or in your fruit bar snack, these are natural sugars from the fruit. Where it can sometimes get tricky is distinguishing natural sugars from added sugar in products. This is where the Ingredient List can be helpful in addition to the Nutrition Facts Table.
The Ingredient List
The ingredient list reveals the composition of the product, listed in descending order by weight. This means that the first listed ingredients are the heaviest ingredients and in the highest proportion compared to the rest of the ingredients (listed further down the list).
For example, if you want to be mindful of the amount of added sugar in a food product, look where sugars show up in the order of the ingredient list. If sugar is listed as the first ingredient, we can assume that there is a high proportion of added sugar compared to the other ingredients in that product. On the other hand, if the first few ingredients listed are whole foods like whole grain flour, oats, dried fruit, etc. and sugar shows up near the bottom of the ingredient list, we can assume that there are lower amounts of added sugar compared to natural sugars in that product.
The Ingredient List is also helpful in identifying any allergens or food intolerances you may need to be aware of. Common allergens are often listed at the very end of the ingredient list for quick reference.
Nutrition claims on food packaging serve as quick indicators of a product’s nutritional profile. Nutrition claims include nutrient content claims and health claims, both are optional on food labels.
Nutrient Content Claims
Nutrient Content Claims highlight specific nutrient levels, such as “low fat” or “high in fiber.”
When you want to increase your intake of certain nutrients, look for words like source, high in, excellent source, for example “source of calcium”, “high in fibre”, or “excellent source of vitamin C”.
When you want to decrease your intake of certain nutrients, look for words like free, low, or reduced, for example “sugar free”, “low in saturated fat” or “reduced sodium”.
For a complete list of nutrient content claims and their meanings, visit Nutrient content claims: what they mean.
Health Claims connect a nutrient or food to a reduced risk of disease, providing additional context. For example, “A healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer,” or “A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
For a complete list of health claims and their meanings, visit Health Claims: what they mean.
My hope is that by coming to the end of this article you have a greater understanding on how to read and use food labels and feel more confident making informed food decisions. Keep in mind that food is more than just nutrients and choosing to eat certain foods because of fun, flavour, enjoyment, culture, spontaneity, etc. are all parts of a healthy balanced diet as well.
Looking for further support in making lifestyle and nutrition changes? We can help!
Unsure where to start or feeling stuck on the way? Get connected with one of our dietitians who can support you on your journey. We have a team of experienced dietitians who are passionate about coming alongside you and finding personalized solutions to your nutrition challenges.
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Looking for more nutrition information? Check out our other blog posts:
meal planning, weight concerns, metabolic disease, diabetes, chronic disease, recreational sports nutrition
Carlin has a natural knack for connecting with people and making them feel at ease. She is known for her bright smile, sincere care, and infectious enthusiasm when working with clients. Carlin is passionate about supporting clients in their health journey, goals, and making peace with food and their body. She believes strongly in empowering people to make lasting change that suits their needs and lifestyle.