Reading Food Labels

Grocery shopping can be quite a feat in itself sometimes, and trying to understand what is plastered all over food labels can make comparing different food products completely overwhelming! Hopefully this breakdown will help ease the confusion of food label garble!

To begin, food labels have four general components:

  1. The ingredient list
  2. The Nutrition Facts table
  3. Nutrient content claims
  4. Health claims

Let’s look at each component individually.

Ingredient List

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, NOT by volume as a lot of people mistakenly think. Beware products that have sugar or salt as one of the first three ingredients. Chances are there isn’t a whole lot more in that product than sugar or salt!

Nutrition Facts Table

The Nutrition Facts Table provides you with information on calories and specific nutrients for the serving size shown.

When reading the Nutrition Facts table, there are 3 things you should look for:

  1. Serving size and number of servings per container (*It is very important you make note of the serving size as the Nutrition Facts are based on a specific amount of food. Compare this to the amount you actually eat.)
  2. Total calories, calories from fat, calories from saturated and trans fats per serving (Total calories from fat should be <30% of total calories)
  3. % Daily Value

What is the % Daily Value?

The % Daily Value shows how much a serving contributes to your overall daily intake of the various nutrients listed.

  • Foods with <5% DV of a nutrient are low in that nutrient (e.g. If you want to consume lower-fat foods, those that contain <5% of the DV for fat are appropriate)
  • Foods with >20% DV are high in that nutrient (e.g. If you are looking to increase your calcium intake, products with >20% DV for calcium are excellent choices)

Nutrient Content Claims

These are claims about the amount of nutrient in a food:

  • “Free” (e.g. “Fat Free”)
  • “Low” (e.g. “Low Sodium”)
  • “More” (e.g. “More Fibre”)
  • “Reduced” (e.g. “Reduced Sodium”)
  • “Source of” (e.g. “Source of Omega-3”)
  • “Light/Lite” – I was surprised to learn in one of my classes that this claim is actually useless! “Light” could mean light in flavor, light in color, light in weight etc.
  • “No Sugar Added”
  • “100% Whole Grains”
  • Etc.

Health Claims

These claims make the product more appealing to customers by boasting “Low in Cholesterol”, “High in Antioxidants” etc.

Takeaways: 

  • Check out what the first few ingredients are in the ingredients list for substantial ingredients rather than sugar, artificial flavors and sodium.
  • Based on the % Daily Value, always choose items LOW in saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. Alternatively, choose items HIGHER in fibre, calcium and iron.
  • <5% Daily Value is LESS and >15% Daily Value is MORE.
  • Beware of products that boast “Light” something.
  • Always remember, look at the serving size before comparing products!

Now let’s do a little practice comparison to put what we’ve talked about into action! Let’s compare these two anonymous brands of crackers and decide which one is the healthier option.

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*Don’t scroll any farther until you have your answer!

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What major differences do you see?

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Did you check the serving size?

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Are these crackers low in sodium?

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Ready?

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Looking at the serving size we notice that the Nutritional Information for Cracker A is actually for double the amount of crackers than Cracker A’s information. However, the weights are almost equivalent, so therefore we can still compare the Nutritional Information for the two different crackers!

Comparing the Nutrition Facts, we see:

  • Cracker A has 13% DV for saturated and trans fats while Cracker B has 2% DV.
  • Cracker A has 12% DV for sodium while Cracker B has 4% DV.
  • Cracker A has 4% DV for fibre while Cracker B has 12% DV.

In this case, Cracker B would be a better choice if you are trying to eat less saturated and trans fats, less sodium and more fibre!

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