Have you ever tried to decide between two brands of canned soup at the market? You can make a quick side-by-side judgment thanks to the "Nutrition Facts" table. Health Canada requires food companies to mark their packaged food products with a consistent and truthful label detailing certain nutrient information. Health Canada introduced new label rules at the end of 2016 and gave the food industry 5 years to meet these new rules. Throughout this transition period, what you read on a nutrition label may change or may vary between food products and companies. The "Nutrition Facts" table is required to include information on 13 items: calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, calcium, potassium, and iron.
The following information is based on the new Health Canada regulations. Here's a rundown of the necessary elements:
Ingredients: The ingredients that go into making your packaged or prepared foods will usually be listed somewhere near but outside of the "Nutrition Facts" table. Sugar-based ingredients will now be grouped together to allow you to assess what added sugars are used. You will see “Sugars” followed by the types of added sugars in brackets by weight from largest to least. For example, an ingredient list may be as follows: Sugars (fancy molasses, brown sugar, sugar). All ingredients are listed in order by weight from most to least and separated by a bullet point or comma. So the item at the top of the list is the ingredient present in the highest amount by weight. With the new labelling, it will be easier for you to check if the prepared food contains an allergen. It is required to have a separate line titled “Contains” that will indicate if the product contains common allergens such as nuts, eggs, or dairy.
Indicated serving: You'll spot this at the top of the "Nutrition Facts" table. This tells you the portion of that particular food item that was used to determine the information found in the table. With the new regulation, serving size is required to be more consistent between foods and reflect the amount typically eaten, or a “reference amount.” Single-serving items will have the serving size of the entire product. This means you won’t be required to do any fancy math when you eat the whole bag of chips or drink the entire small carton of milk. For multi-serving packages, the serving sizes are based on the reference amount. For example, all yogurts in multi-serve packages will be required to have nutrition facts based on a 3/4 cup (175 g) serving; that way, you can compare the nutrition facts between two different yogurt brands more easily.
Percent of daily value (%DV): The percentage noted beside each nutrient tells you how much of that nutrient is in the serving size of the food. These calculations are based on average recommendations for a healthy diet (2000 calories per day) and can be used to do a head-to-head comparison between two similar-sized servings of specific foods. As a rule of thumb, 5% DV or lower is considered a small amount, while 15% DV or higher in one serving is a lot. This rule will now be written at the bottom of all “Nutrition Facts” tables. Nutrients you may want more of include calcium, potassium, iron, and fibre. Nutrients you may want less of include sugar, fat, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.
Nutrient contents: Now you get to the nutritional nitty-gritty! Most of a "Nutrition Facts" label will be devoted to the amount and percentage of the most important core nutrients:
- Calories: Foods give your body energy to do the things it needs to do. Calories are a measurement of that energy. Your body only needs a certain number of calories per day, depending on your gender, age, and how physically active you are. When you exceed your body’s daily calorie needs, extra calories will be stored away. Some is stored as fat, some as carbohydrates in your muscles.
Tip: Check the calorie count on a food label to see how much of your daily tally will be met by eating a serving of that food. Remember to check the indicated serving specified at the top of the table and adjust accordingly.
- Fat: Our bodies need fat for growth and energy, but it should make up no more than one-third of our daily total calories – even less for people with high cholesterol or other cardiovascular risk factors. Excess fat gets stored in the belly and beneath the skin, and sometimes finds its way into our blood vessels and organs. When considering which fats to consume, strive to eat more of the good kinds of fats – unsaturated fats found in nuts, fish and vegetable oil – and less of the bad types – saturated and trans fats.
Tip: Look at the fat data on the label. You'll probably only see the "bad" fats noted – saturated and trans fats. Add those two together and subtract from the total fat to find the "good" fats – the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids among them). Any product that has a %DV of 5% total fat or lower can be considered "low" in fat.
- Cholesterol: Your body is able to create all of the cholesterol it needs to make the membranes of cells in our body, keep hormones in balance, absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and produce vitamin D. Too much extra cholesterol from foods we eat can become dangerous. The foods that raise your blood cholesterol are usually the foods high in saturated and trans fats. High cholesterol increases heart attack and stroke risks. Dietary cholesterol does not necessarily affect your blood cholesterol level – this depends on the person. Foods low in saturated and trans fats are also low in dietary cholesterol. Doctors do advise limiting dietary cholesterol intake to somewhere between 200 mg to 300 mg per day, especially if you are at risk of heart disease.
Tip: Know your daily cholesterol limit because, while you'll always see the total cholesterol in milligrams in a food label, labelling the percentage of the daily value is not mandatory. Remember, of those that are labelled, anything below 5% is considered "low" in cholesterol.
- Sodium: Excess levels of sodium in the diet can boost blood pressure to unsafe levels in some people. You should aim to eat no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. However, people in particular risk groups may need to slash sodium levels to a maximum of 2,000 mg daily.
Tip: When you see "sodium" on a food label, most of the time it indicates salt (i.e., sodium chloride, or table salt) content. Sodium can lurk inside of other ingredients too, and turns up in high quantities in many prepared foods. A food that contains 5% or less of the daily value of sodium would be considered "low" in the mineral.
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. Simple carbohydrates found in sugar, fruits, and dairy products release quickly into the body. Complex carbohydrates – starches and fibre found in potatoes, grains, and root vegetables – take longer to break down and provide a slower-burning energy source. About half of your daily calories should come from a carbohydrate source, but any extra that your body doesn’t need will be stored as fat.
Tip: The carb section of the food label will usually be divided into total grams of sugars and of fibre. Look for higher tallies of fibre and lower of sugars. A food with high fibre will contain 15% or more of the heart-healthy, digestion-supporting nutrient.
- Protein: Adults require about 60 g of protein per day, about 10% to 15% of your total daily calorie intake, to maintain healthy cells and tissues. Growing children need a slightly higher percentage. Any protein you eat beyond your body's daily needs will be broken down and stored as fat.
Tip: Check the label to see how many grams of protein are found in the indicated serving of foods and drinks. You'll notice that there's no %DV noted next to protein. That's because most Canadians who eat a relatively mixed diet will consume an adequate amount of protein without much trouble.
- Vitamins/Minerals: Health Canada mandates that food labels now include information on a few minerals – including calcium, potassium, and iron. Vitamins A and C are being phased out of the food label since most Canadians consume more than enough of these vitamins. Other nutrients may be noted, especially if a food contains high quantities of a nutrient, a healthy asset that food companies would definitely want to highlight.
Tip: Mineral tallies will now be described by %DV and a milligram amount. While most healthy Canadians will not need to worry about a milligram value, some specific groups will find this useful to ensure they do not consume too much.