Understand the "Nutrition Facts" box

Have you ever tried to decide between two brands of canned soup at the market? A quick side-by-side judgment can be made 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 info. The "Nutrition Facts" table is required to include information on 14 items: calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

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. The ingredients are listed in order from most weight to least weight. So the item at the top of the list is the ingredient present in the highest amount by weight. You'd check here to see if a food contains any known allergens.

Indicated serving: You'll spot this at the top of the "Nutrition Facts" table. This factoid tells you the portion of that particular food item that was used to determine the information found in the table, and the indicated serving can vary among manufacturers. All of the nutritional stats to follow in the table will depend on this indicated serving. So, if you gulp down all 500 mL of orange juice in a bottle, but the label states a serving size "per 250 mL," you'd have to double the nutritional values to figure out how many calories you've downed or what percentage of a vitamin you've consumed. While liquids are usually expressed in mL, cookies or slices of bread are often noted by number.

Percent of daily value (%DV): The percentages noted beside each nutrient tell you how much of that nutrient the food provides per the serving size indicated at the top of the table. These calculations are based on average recommendations for a healthy diet and can be used to do a head-to-head comparison between two similarly-sized servings of specific foods. As a rule of thumb, 5% DV or lower is a little while 15% DV or higher in one serving is a lot. Nutrients you may want more of include calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamins A and C. Nutrients you may want less of include 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 - somewhere between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day, depending on your gender, age, and how physically active you are. When you exceed your daily calorie needs, extra calories will be stored away. Some is stored as fat, some as carbohydrates in your muscles.
    Label-able tip: You'd 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 and less of the bad types (limit saturated and trans fats to less than 10% of total daily calories).
    Label-able 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 whatever you're left with is the total of "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 (10% or lower in trans and saturated fats) can be considered "low" in fat.

  • Cholesterol: Our bodies create all of the cholesterol it needs to make the membranes of cells in our body, keep hormones in balance, to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and to 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 to limit dietary cholesterol intake to somewhere between 200 mg to 300 mg per day, especially if you are at risk of heart disease.
    Label-able 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. 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. Aim to eat less than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) of sodium per day, though people in particular risk groups may need to slash sodium to levels as low as 1,500 mg daily.
    Label-able 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 soups and 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 will be stored as fat.
    Label-able tip: The carb section of the food label will usually be divided into total grams of sugars and of fibre. Add those totals together and whatever is left in total carbohydrate count will be starches. Look for higher tallies of fibre and lower of sugars. A food with high fibre will contain 15% or more of the heart-healthy, digestive-supporting nutrient.

  • Protein: Adults require about 60 g of protein per day, about 10% to 15% of total daily calorie intake, to maintain healthy cells and tissues. Growing children need slightly more. Any protein you eat beyond your body's daily needs will be broken down and stored as fat.
    Label-able 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: Health Canada mandates that food labels include information on a few vitamins and minerals - vitamins A and C, and the minerals calcium and iron. 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.
    Label-able tip: Vitamin tallies will be described by percentages of the daily recommended intake value, not by a measurement like milligrams. That's because the notation of vitamin totals can get complicated and confusing. Also, the numbers can mislead. On the one hand, one cup of mustard greens contains 10  mg of calcium, which sounds like a lot, but only meets 10% of the daily value. On the other hand, one cup of spinach contains only 6 mg of iron, which meets 36% of the daily value for that mineral.

Food label claims

Beyond the "Nutrition Facts" box, you may spot other nutrition buzzwords. Each of those words and claims are carefully crafted to attract consumer attention and to meet specific regulations that are laid out by Health Canada. You can trust that behind every mention of "free" or "low" or "light" there has been a process to evaluate whether or not a food meets those standards. But what you can't see on the label are the standards themselves.

Setting limits

Free: When a food label says "fat-free," it's natural to assume that the food contains absolutely no fat. But for a food product to claim to be "free" of something, it must contain an amount so small that it would be deemed nutritionally insignificant. That doesn't necessarily mean that there is zero fat - or cholesterol or sodium or sugar - just not enough to really matter.

Low: How low must a food go to be deemed "low-fat" or "low in sodium"? Health Canada mandates that something labelled as "low" in a particular nutrient or ingredient is always associated with a very small amount, and this amount varies depending on the ingredient.

Reduced: You'll see this word attached to "fat" quite often - reduced-fat milk, reduced-fat cheese. To be considered "reduced," a food must contain at least 25% less of a nutrient than a comparable product.

Light: This word sounds diet-friendly, and that's because it can only be attached to a product that is either reduced in fat or in calories. You may also spot the phrase "lightly salted" on foods that contain at least 50% less added sodium than a similar food product.

Making claims

Source: Foods labelled as a "source of" a particular nutrient, like fibre, contain what is considered to be a "significant amount." A food may also be labelled as a "very good" or "excellent" source of some nutrient.

Health claims: Health Canada regulations allow food companies to make a few types of claims on their food labels that are diet-related health claims that draw attention to a relationship between diet and a medical condition or disease.

Health Canada allows the following claims to be made on the nutrition label:

  • A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • A healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer.
  • A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D, and regular physical activity, helps to achieve strong bones and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • A healthy diet containing foods low in sodium and high in potassium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

Manufacturers can only use a specific claim if their product meets the specific criteria of government regulations.

4 food label buzzwords explained

Fresh: The word "fresh" brings to mind the plucking of a ripe blueberry right off the bush, but in the world of packaged food, the word takes on different meanings. "Fresh" may be used to indicate that the food has not been preserved or processed in any way. "Fresh" may also indicate the age of a food - fresh-baked bread, farm-fresh produce, freshly-ground coffee beans - and should be accompanied by a "packaged-on" date. Since taste is subjective and up to the consumer, food companies can get away with claiming something is fresh-tasting even if it has been frozen and on the shelf for awhile.

Homemade: It may strike you as strange to see the word "homemade" on a food you're buying at the supermarket, but there it is. While it is potentially misleading, a food can be labelled "home-style" or "like homemade" or "tastes like homemade" even if it is made from a mix. However, the term "homemade" alone can't be used on commercially prepared foods.

Natural: Ah, nature - the mere mention of it hints at healthy benefits and makes a consumer feel good about a purchase. But just because the word "natural" is on a food label does not instantly make it better or more wholesome. Foods labelled "natural" may still contain too much sugar or fat. And though a food that has been processed or contains additives can no longer be classified as "100% natural," that doesn't necessarily mean that it has become bad for you.

Organic: Like the word "natural," the word "organic" may lead consumers to believe that they're buying wholesome, nutritious food. But while some certified organic foods may be quite good for you, organic food production is more about environmentally-sustainable production practices and humane treatment of animals. In Canada, it is mandatory that a food claiming to be organic be certified by an appropriate certifying body (either in Canada or the US). It may bear the Canada Organic logo, a seal that assures you the food you're choosing was grown and processed according to an agreed-upon set of standards. However, the use of the logo is voluntary so not all certified organic products will have the logo.

Food allergies and label aliases

Spot the alias

An egg by any other name… can be confusing! Watch for these possible aliases of common allergens.*

corn sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, cornstarch, crystalline fructose, crystalline glucose, dextrose, glucose, glucose syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), lecithin (from corn), maltodextrin

albumin, conalbumin, egg substitutes, globulin, lecithin (from egg), livetin, lysozyme, meringue, ovalbumin, ovomacroglobulin, ovomucin, ovomucoid, ovotransferrin, ovovitellin, silico-albuminate, Simplesse®, vitellin

fish (includes crustaceans and shellfish)
anchovy, bass, bluefish, calamari, carp, catfish, char, clam, cod, cockle, conch, crab, crayfish, eel, escargot, halibut, herring, lobster, mackerel, mahi-mahi, marlin, mussels, octopus, orange roughy, pickerel, pike, pollock, prawns, rockfish, salmon, sardine, shark, shrimp, scallops, sea urchin, smelt, snails, snapper, swordfish, squid, tilapia, trout, tuna (albacore/yellow fin/bonito), walleye, white fish

ammonium caseinate, calcium caseinate, magnesium caseinate, potassium caseinate, sodium caseinate, casein, caseinate, curds, dry milk, hydrolyzed casein, hydrolyzed milk protein, lactalbumin, lactate, lactoferrin, lactoglobulin, lactose, modified milk ingredients, Opta™, sour cream, sour milk solids, whey, whey protein concentrate, rennet

arachide, arachis oil, beer nuts, cacahouète, cacahouette, cacahuète, goober nuts, goober peas, ground nuts, mandelonas, Nu-Nuts™, nut meats, valencias

sesame, sesame seed
benne, benne seed, benniseed, flavouring, gingelly, gingelly oil, seeds, sesamol, sesamolina, sesamum indicum, sim sim, tahina, tahini, til, vegetable oil

edamame, lecithin (from soybeans), kinako, kouridofu, miso, monoglyceride, diglyceride, natto, okara, soya, soja, soybean, soyabeans, soybean curds, soy protein (isolate/concentrate), tempeh, textured soy flour (TSF), textured soy protein (TSP), textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, vegetable protein, yuba

calcium sulphite, calcium bisulphite, potassium bisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, sulphiting agent, sulphur dioxide, sulphurous acid, E220, E221, E222, E223, E224, E225, E226, E227, E228

tree nuts (includes almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts [filberts], macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, and walnuts)
almond paste, anacardium nuts, calisson, mandelonas, marzipan, nut meats, Nu-Nuts™, pignolias, Queensland nut

atta, bulgur, couscous, durum, einkorn, emmer, enriched/white/whole wheat flour, farina, gluten, graham flour, high gluten flour, kamut, protein flour, seitan, semolina, spelt (dinkel/farro), triticale, Triticum aestivum, wheat bran, wheat germ, wheat starch

*Note: This guide should not be considered the final word on your allergen and its "aliases" - speak to your doctor about obtaining a complete list.

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