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How to read a food label

Food labels are indispensable tools for those who wish to eat healthfully. Learn how to read and interpret the nutrition facts, ingredient lists and nutrition claims on your food packaging.

Source: Health Services

Food labels are required by law in Canada on all packaged foods, with a few exceptions. There are three main kinds of information on a label: the Nutrition Facts panel, the ingredient list and the nutrition claim.

How to read a Nutrition Facts panel

The Nutrition Facts panel lists the serving size, amount of calories per serving and the amount of 13 nutrients per serving. It can be used to compare two different brands of a food product. A Nutrition Facts panel for a granola nut bar is used as an example in the image below. Here’s what to look for:

1. What is the serving size?

Often, the serving size for a food is different for different brands. For example, one serving of Froot Loops cereal is 3/4 cup (27 grams) while one serving of Quaker Harvest Crunch cereal is 2/3 cup (45 g). When comparing foods with serving sizes that are significantly different, you will have to do a bit of calculating to ensure that you are comparing the same amount of food. In the nut bar example the serving size is one bar that weighs 35 grams.              

2. How many calories are in a serving?

There can be a big difference between brands. Be aware that a food may seem to be low-calorie but the serving size on the “Nutrition Facts” panel may be very small. The nut bar has 170 calories.

3. What percentage of calories comes from fat?

The amount of fat on a Nutrition Facts panel is listed in grams. This can be useful to identify foods that are low in fat. However, you also need to consider what percentage of the total calories comes from fat. To do this, multiply the grams of fat by nine (there are nine calories per gram of fat), divide that number by the total calories and then multiply by 100.

For the nut bar example, the percent of calories from fat = [(9 x 9) / 70] x 100 = 48%. Almost half of the nut bar’s calories come from fat. (Note: The % Daily Value is not the same as the % of calories from fat in the product.)

4. Do saturated and trans fat account for a high proportion of total fat?

Because of an association with health problems, it is recommended to avoid trans fat and to keep saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories. The nutrition label for the nut bar indicates that it contains no trans fat, while saturated fat accounts for just under one-third of the total fat in this product (2.5 grams of saturated fat in 9 grams of total fat).

5. Is the food low in sodium?

You should aim to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day, which is the amount of sodium in one teaspoon of table salt. The nut bar is relatively low in sodium (140 mgs).

6. How much fibre is in the product?

Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fibre each day from foods, not supplements. This bar contains some fibre (2 grams). High fibre foods contain 4 to 6 grams of fibre per serving.

7. How much sugar is in the product?

The amount of sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts panel includes both the sugar that occurs naturally in the ingredients and added sugars (e.g., white sugar). One teaspoon of sugar weighs four grams. Therefore, the nut bar has just less than three teaspoons of sugar (11 grams). Note, though, that almost one-third of the weight of the bar is sugar (11 of the 35 grams)!

8. Is the food rich in vitamins and minerals?

The Nutrition Facts panel indicates "% Daily Value" numbers for two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (calcium and iron) only. You can tell if a food is rich in these particular nutrients if their “% Daily Value” is high.

9. Don’t pay too much attention to the “% Daily Values” for nutrients

These values are based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet, which is the amount of calories needed by a moderately active person of 68 kg (150 pounds). Larger people and those who are more active require more calories. If you need more or less than 2,000 calories a day, this information will not be appropriate for you. However, it can give you an idea of which nutrients are abundant (large % daily value number) and which are not (low number).

What to look for in the ingredient list

The ingredient list contains all ingredients in the food. They are listed from most to least by weight. The closer an ingredient is to the top of the list, the more of it the food contains. Avoid or limit foods with the following ingredients at or near the top of the list:

  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which are high in saturated or trans fat.
  • Sugar, fructose, glucose, dextrose and high fructose corn syrup, which are all forms of added sugar.
  • Stone ground, enriched, bleached or multigrain flour, which are processed grains. Opt for whole grains such as whole wheat, whole rye, or whole oats.

The first six ingredients in the nut bar are: roasted peanuts, corn syrup, sugar, whole grain rolled oats, glucose-fructose and palm kernel oil. The label states "made with 100% whole grains" but the bar contains more sugar, corn syrup and peanuts than whole grains.

Understanding nutrition claims

A nutrition claim is a legally regulated statement that is meant to help you spot healthy foods. A few examples are:

  • Calorie-reduced: 50% fewer calories than the regular version.
  • High source of dietary fibre: At least four grams of fibre per serving.
  • Very high source of dietary fibre: At least six grams of fibre per serving.

Don’t base your food choices only on the nutrition claim as it can be misleading. For example, a food that is calorie-reduced can still be high in calories; the claim just means that it is not as high as the regular version. The Nutrition Facts panel provides much richer information than the nutrition claims.

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