Food and nutrition labels on food are packed with helpful information. Often they’re our go-to source for calorie, fat, and carbohydrate information, but they have a whole lot more to communicate to consumers.
Here are some fast facts about what information you can find on food labels, and what it really means:
All ingredients lists are sorted by weight.1
That’s right, the first item on any ingredients list is the one that weighs the heaviest in the product, and goes down in descending order. If you’re keeping an eye out for certain ingredients (of which you want more or less) their order on the list can be a clue to guide you.
Some foods make nutrition claims.1,2
For better or worse, packaged foods will often come with claims that explain the value of certain nutrients, such as “low in sodium,” “high in fibre,” or “a good source of iron.” Sometimes those claims go a step further and explain why that value is good for your health, such as: “A healthy diet containing foods high in potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.” The good news about these claims is that, in Canada, they must follow certain rules from Health Canada to make sure they are consistent and not misleading.
Information on nutrition facts tables are based on serving sizes.3
Serving sizes are important measurements to consider before you look at calories or any other nutrient breakdown on the list. The serving size can vary between products, and it’s often much smaller than the amount you would serve yourself if you’re not paying attention. It can help you understand how much of certain nutrients you’re eating, compare nutritional values between similarly packaged products, and gauge the amount of food you’re actually eating.
The term “%DV” means the percentage of your daily value.4
In addition to serving size and calories, there are 13 core nutrients that are listed on every nutrition label: fat, saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The percentage of your daily value requirement for most of these items is noted by %DV at the end of each line, and it’s based on the recommended serving size. If it’s less than 5%, that means it’s a very small amount, and if it’s more than 15%, it’s more significant. In Canada, these values are determined by the recommended daily intake (or RDI) of vitamins and minerals as well as the reference standards for fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, carbohydrates, fibre, potassium, and sodium. The helpful thing about %DV is that it makes it easier to compare different products and make more informed food choices about what you want and need in your diet.
Not all foods must have a nutrition facts table (but most do).5
In Canada, by law, nearly all packaged food must have a nutrition facts table. However, there are a few food items that don’t require one: fresh produce, raw meat and seafood, one–bite candies and snacks, milk sold in refillable glass bottles, individual servings of freshly prepared food intended for immediate consumption, and in-store fresh foods like bakery items and salads. On the upside, sticking to fresh produce means you don’t have to worry about preservatives or sort through any ingredients lists since there’s only one ingredient!
Calories mean energy.6
We’re often told to watch our calories and think of them as an intimidating little number directly linked to putting on weight. That’s not necessarily the case. Calories represent the amount of energy in food, which come from carbohydrates, fats, and protein, all of which are necessary for proper nutrition. Your body uses this energy to perform all its daily tasks, and we need to eat enough to replenish the calories we use throughout the day. When it comes to nutrition labels, whether or not we follow the serving suggestion can be more important than counting calories.Looking for more guidance on healthy food choices? Ask Dr. Campbell or Dr. McKeagan.