Being label conscious: How to read nutrition labels

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There are many claims made in big, bright print on the front of food packages but don’t be fooled. Your best source of information is the nutrition label. All food companies in Canada must include nutritional labelling on packaged foods so that consumers can make better and informed food choices. The label lists all ingredients used to prepare the food in order of weight, from most to least.

Beware of:

  • Unfamiliar ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it, it likely isn’t good for you.
  • Alternative names for fats, sodium and sugar. For example, powdered milk solids are actually fat; partially hydrogenated fats and oils are trans fats; monosodium glutamate is sodium; sucrose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, treacle or the newly termed corn sugar are all different forms of sugar.
  • Foods that have more than five ingredients.
  • Foods with trans fats, high fructose corn syrup or corn sugar.

The Nutrition Facts Table gives the amount in grams and the percentage of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of 13 nutrients as well as calories.

Here’s a line-by-line look:

Serving size

The amount of food that is used to measure percent Daily Values. Often on large, high calorie or high sugar items such as a sports drink, the serving size used on the nutritional chart is for only one quarter or one half of the bottle. If you drink the entire bottle, you need to multiply the nutritional values accordingly.

Calories per serving size

Remember, a serving may be less than the container, can or bottle.


These figures are based on adult levels of Recommended Daily Intake (RDI). A child’s RDI is much different.


Food manufacturers are not required to include cholesterol values on their labels. Cholesterol is a type of fat made by the body and it is also found in animal-based foods such as meat, cheese and eggs. People with high cholesterol levels should avoid foods that contain cholesterol and in general, none of us should exceed 300 mg/day.


Again, the RDI is based on the accepted adult level of 2,400mg/day. Children should consume only 1,000–1,500 mg of sodium.


I love that the carbohydrate section is broken down into only fibre and sugar because this is how we should understand carbohydrates. Good carbohydrates are high in fibre and low in sugar. Children need eight to 25 grams of fibre per day, (add five to their age to fi gure out the daily requirement until age 15, then it becomes 25g).

The Nutrition Facts label does not have a percentage daily value for sugar because there isn’t agreement on what an acceptable level is. Generally adults should not consume more than 40 grams of sugar a day and most of those grams should be from natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains and dairy. Processed sugar is not necessary in anyone’s diet and it should be limited. There are approximately four teaspoons of sugar in a gram so the next time your child asks for a can of pop, picture feeding them 10 teaspoons of sugar!


There is no percentage daily value given because protein is readily available in the Canadian diet and most of us get sufficient amounts. Vegans and vegetarians must ensure their diets meet their protein needs through vegetable based proteins so total protein consumption can be calculated from food labels.


The recommended daily percentages for micronutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin A are based on adult levels. A food containing five percent of a micronutrient is considered a poor source; a food containing 15 percent of a micronutrient is considered a good source.

Specific claims made on food packaging are also regulated:

Reduced fat: Product has 25 percent less fat than the same regular brand.

Product has 50 percent less fat than the same regular product.

Low fat:
Product has less than three grams of fat per serving.

Product is 95–100 percent organic, depending on the type of food and its method of production. For example, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineered seed or plants, or ionizing radiation.

Natural: Product contains no artificial colouring or chemical preservatives; meat and poultry, is minimally processed. This does not exclude meat treated with artifi cial hormones or injected with saline solution, or food containing “natural flavours” such as processed proteins.

Best bet

Look for foods with:

  • More than 2g of fibre
  • Less than 4g of fat
  • Less than 480g of sodium
  • Less than 4g of sugar

Better yet, buy more foods that don’t need a label!

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