If you feel confused when you read food labels, you're not alone. We explain nutrition claims, food labels, and the nutrition facts table.
A typical trip to the grocery store can be overwhelming as you navigate through thousands of food products—but it doesn’t have to be. With some guidance, you can learn the ins and outs of reading food labels, and figure out what’s really in your food.
Food labels can help
The simplest way to determine a specific food’s nutritional value—or lack thereof—is to examine its label critically. Doing so can help you with the following.
- steer clear of unnecessary additives (such as colouring, flavouring, and MSG) and chemicals (such as preservatives)
- accommodate special diets and avoid foods that trigger intolerances or allergies
- compare several different products’ nutritional content
Let’s stroll through the grocery store, starting in the bakery section. Grab any loaf of bread; turn it over and you will find the Nutrition Facts table.
How do I read the Nutrition Facts table?
The Nutrition Facts table is conveniently broken down into macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and proteins), and lists some of the major micronutrients as well, such as sodium, calcium, iron, and vitamins C and A. As a general rule, choose foods that are higher in fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron, and avoid foods that are higher in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium.
Another thing to take into consideration when reading the Nutrition Facts table is serving size. Often products will contain fraction servings (2.5 servings per can, for example), or contain data based on a specific number of pieces, such as 12 crackers. Failing to observe the suggested serving size can make it easy to eat two or three servings without even realizing it!
The next important piece of information to look for on a food product is the ingredient list.
What do I need to know about the ingredient list?
Ingredient lists are ordered by weight. That means that if sugar is first on the list, the food is primarily sugar! There are nearly 100 different names for sugar and sugar alcohols, so it’s worth learning some of the most common names so you can catch them the next time you’re scanning the ingredient list (see “Sugar in disguise” page 70). Other ingredients, such as sodium, also have a number of different names that are used. Watch out for them, too (see “Sneaky sodium” page 70)!
Let’s continue our tour of the grocery store to the middle aisles, heading to the canned goods. The canned goods aisle is a likely place to find the common phrase “reduced sodium.”
What do reduced sodium and other food claims mean?
Food item labels are often covered in claims such as reduced sodium, low fat, and sugar free. Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates the use of food claims, it’s best to choose these products carefully, as the claims can be misleading. For example, reduced sodium means “the food is processed, formulated, reformulated or otherwise modified so that it contains at least 25 percent less sodium.” However, a serving of a popular brand’s cream of mushroom soup—despite being 25 percent less sodium—still contains a whopping 650 mg sodium.
Always flip the package over to see the amount of sodium on the Nutrition Facts table (Health Canada recommends between 1,000 and 1,500 mg daily). Phrases on the front of the package don’t tell the whole story—check out the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts table instead.
As we continue down the aisles, we come to dry goods, including crackers and cookies. With shelf after shelf filled with various brands of the same product, it’s hard to know where to begin. You might decide to grab the nearest package that says “organic” on it, since organic means healthy, right?
What does organic mean?
Organic foods fall under strict regulations, but the main benefit of organic foods is that they are free of synthetic pesticides and preservatives, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified ingredients. This means that organic foods are better for the environment and easier on the human body, too.
All of this brings us to the produce section. There aren’t any Nutrition Facts tables or ingredient lists on these items.
Why don’t fruits and vegetables have labels?
Because fruits and vegetables don’t constitute a “prepackaged food,” they do not require labels. Instead, they have PLU codes, which indicate the specific type of food and whether it is grown according to conventional or organic standards. A typical PLU code is four digits long; however, a five-digit PLU code that begins with a “9” indicates the produce is organic.
Leaving the produce section of the grocery store brings you to the checkout stand and the end of the grocery tour. The next time you are grocery shopping, consider these tips and recommendations for a quicker, easier, and healthier shopping experience. a
Common nutrition claims, decoded
Zero calories, high in fibre, a good source of calcium—what do they all mean? Here are a few common food claims decrypted.
- Zero calories: fewer than 5 calories per serving (keep in mind you could be easily eating more than one serving, in which case the food isn’t entirely calorie free)
- High in fibre: at least 4 g of fibre per serving
- Good source of X vitamin/mineral: more than 15 percent of the recommended daily intake per serving
What do I need to know about the ingredient list?
Sodium is an ingredient often referred to by a pseudonym. Watch out for these common aliases.
- baking powder
- baking soda
- celery salt
- disodium phosphate
- garlic salt
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- onion salt
- sodium alginate
- sodium benzoate
- sodium proprionate
Sugar in disguise
Sugar goes by many other names, so keep an eye out for these common culprits. Notice that most of them end in “-ose,” which generally indicates it’s a sugar.
- cane juice extract
- corn syrup
- evaporated cane juice
- high fructose corn syrup