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Digesting Food Labels


When buying healthier foods, most Canadian shoppers increasingly consult the new, approved nutrition information panels, but almost as many are confused by its numbers and claims. To make your next trip to the supermarket more practical, <i>alive</i> presents the essential facts about food labels.

When buying healthier foods, most Canadian shoppers increasingly consult the new, approved nutrition information panels, but almost as many are confused by its numbers and claims. To make your next trip to the supermarket more practical, alive presents the essential facts about food labels.

Since there is little doubt that there is a strong relationship between diet and health, knowing how to decipher today’s food labels may be one of the most important steps for maintaining health. You may have a desire to eat foods that are good for you, but the reality is that developing excellent eating habits takes diligent work. Food labels are useful as valuable sources of product-specific information when making smart shopping decisions, such as letting you know how much salt and fat are in a meal of soup and crackers.

Before heading to the store, remember that individual nutrient requirements vary based on health and activity levels. Athletes in the midst of intense physical training can require more than 2,000 calories, and those in special circumstances such as pregnancy will need increased nutrient requirements, such as iron. A trained nutrition professional can help you determine your individual needs.

Browsing the Nutrition Facts

Most packaged foods have little square boxes that contain nutrition facts–important information about the nutritional levels of a product–which can puzzle shoppers. Here’s your guide to unscrambling the food label formula.

Serving Size

The information included in the nutrition facts is based on specified amounts of food in familiar units such as cups, tablespoons, and grams. But here’s the catch: the serving size listed may not necessarily be your serving size. A cereal may list the serving size as half a cup, but if you usually pour a full cup into your bowl, you’ll need to adjust the calories and other nutrients accordingly. “Food manufacturers have also been known to alter portion sizes to qualify for various health claims,” says Suzanne Carere, a registered dietician and professor of nutrition at George Brown College in Toronto. A company may reduce the portion size so that they can falsely claim foods as “low fat.”

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

Daily Values are listed as percentages and are meant to help you decipher how much of a given nutrient is in the food item. “The Daily Values for vitamins and minerals are based on guidelines for their recommended intake for a healthy population, whereas the Daily Values for carbohydrates and fat are based on an assumption of a 2,000 calorie diet,” says Carere. For example, 65 g of fat are recommended as the limit for a 2,000-calorie reference diet. If a product has 16 g of fat, then the %DV is 25 percent (16 divided by 65 times 100). The %DV can also be used as a rough benchmark to help you determine if one brand of bread has more fibre than another.

Core Nutrients

In addition to listing the number of calories in the indicated serving size, each nutrition facts panel is required to list serving-size quantities of the following 13 core nutrients.

Fat, Saturated and Trans

The total grams of fat–including saturated and trans fat–in the food item are listed. Large food manufacturers are required to state the amount of trans fats in their product, while small manufacturers have until the end of 2007 to comply with the label law. “Since trans fat is such a health hazard,” Carere says, “it’s reassuring to know that you can quickly find out if your favourite bag of chips is loaded with this artery clogger.” Canadians currently consume a high quantity of trans fats, so these new labels could help reduce our intake. Keep in mind, however, that if a product has up to 0.2 g of this unpleasant ingredient, it’s allowed to say zero trans fats. Since even a small amount of this fat is dangerous, it’s still best to scan the ingredient list for sources of trans fats such as vegetable shortening and partially hydrogenated oil. The %DV applies only to saturated fat, as no daily limit for trans fats has been determined. “To give a clearer picture of overall fat content,” Carere also wants to see monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat levels on the label.


The amount of cholesterol by weight is shown; however, the %DV for cholesterol is optional. Thanks to improvements in research, food cholesterol is no longer the villain it was once believed to be. Unless you are particularly sensitive to dietary cholesterol, pay more attention to the trans fats content.


Since many Canadians consume much more sodium than necessary, it’s wise to examine the amount of sodium and try to find low sodium products. The %DV for sodium is the percentage of a recommended upper limit of 2,400 milligrams (mg). However, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, we should actually consume only
1,500 mg of sodium per day.

Carbohydrate, fibre, and sugars

The total amount of carbohydrates in grams and the quantity of fibre and sugars per serving are provided. It’s best that women and men get at least 25 g and 38 g of daily fibre respectively, so look for products with a bigger portion of fibre in the total carbohydrate value. The amount of sugar in an item that comes from natural sources, such as dried fruit, and how much has been added, such as fructose corn syrup, still is not listed.


As a building block for our muscles, cells, and enzymes, protein is very important, so remember to look at the total amount of protein in grams per serving. There is no %DV for protein, since Health Canada assumes an adequate protein intake.

Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron

It would be a monumental task to list every vitamin and mineral in a food item, so these four vitamins and minerals were chosen by health professionals and scientists because of their importance for overall well-being. Carere points out that they are also the ones most familiar to the general public. They are listed only as a %DV since vitamins and minerals are expressed using several different units–such as RE, ug, and IU–that Health Canada considers too confusing for consumers.

Fortifying Nutrients

In addition to the core nutrients, any other nutrients–those related to nutrition claims found on the package or those added, such as omega-3 fatty acids–must be listed. Certain vitamins, minerals, types of fat, sugar alcohols, and starch can be included in this table according to the manufacturer’s wishes. For example, vitamin D is listed on many dairy products. Other ingredients in foods (such as isoflavones) may be mentioned but only outside this table.

List of Ingredients

A detailed list of ingredients that comprises the food item is required for prepackaged foods. The ingredient with the highest quantity by weight is listed first, with the rest of the ingredients listed in descending order. This list can help you determine if desirable–or undesirable–ingredients make up most of the food. For example, if a multigrain bread lists “whole-wheat flour” as the first ingredient, it’s likely a better choice than one that lists “enriched (a.k.a. white) flour” first.

“The ingredient list will also help you identify potential food allergens,” says Carere, but to the dismay of many concerned consumers, what’s missing is whether any of these ingredients have been genetically modified. A good rule of thumb is to focus on foods that contain short lists in order to consume fewer questionable ingredients, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. Now that’s advice you can take to the food bank.



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