Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

Demystifying the Food Label

Of the 57% of Canadians that read food labels regularly, over two-thirds report this to be their main source of food and nutrition information. Consumers who read labels are more likely to choose foods based on overall nutrients. So it may seem surprising that over 40% of Canadians still are not utilizing this great source of information to make healthier choices.

Do you read labels? To help consumers make more informed food choices, Health Canada offers general food label tips and interactive tools.

Food label tools

Food labels listed on packaged and processed foods include the following:

  • Nutrition Facts Table
  • % Daily Value
  • Ingredient List
  • Nutrition Claims

What is the Nutrition Facts Table?

The Nutrition Facts table gives you information on the amount of 13 core nutrients and calories in a given serving size of food.

One of the most useful items on the Nutrition Facts Table is the % Daily Value (% DV). The % DV is the percentage of nutrients that the product contributes to your daily intake based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

How do I use the % Daily Value to help make better food choices?

The % Daily Value (% DV) provides a quick overview of the nutrient content of a food. To use % DV, remember that 5% is a little and 15% is a lot. These numbers can be used to assess nutrients for an individual product or to compare one product to another.
Aim for 15% DV or higher for those nutrients you want more of including the following:

  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Fibre
  • Vitamin A

Aim for 5% DV or lower for those nutrients you may want less of including the following:

  • Fat
  • Saturated and trans fats
  • Sodium

What about the ingredient list?

The ingredient list shows what specific ingredients are included in a processed food. All ingredients are listed by weight from greatest to least. You can use this list to make healthy food choices and to check whether the product contains ingredients to which you may be allergic or intolerant.

The best advice is to use the ingredient list with the Nutrition Facts Table to choose the healthiest food products. Health Canada offers more examples about reading labels.

What do nutrition claims mean and how can they help me choose healthier food products?

Two types of nutrition claims may be found on foods: nutrient content claims and health claims. Nutrient content claims are regulated by Health Canada. Food products need to comply with rules for each specific claim. For example, if a product claims it is low fat, the product would need to contain three grams of fat or less per stated serving on the package.

Health claims are also regulated by Health Canada and are those related to the effect of foods on a person’s health. An example of a health claim could be: A healthy diet containing foods high in potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

Top 3 steps in reading food labels

  1. Review the serving size – is it what you would normally eat?
  2. Read the % DV – 5% is a little; 15% or higher is a lot of a particular nutrient.
  3. Compare labels – use both the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts Table within food categories (like fats or carbohydrates) to help you make the best food choices.

Practice your skills in comparing foods with Health Canada’s interactive how to compare tool.

Article revised March 2015

Debbie Pietsch, Registered Dietitian

Article posted on March 15, 2011

Active Tip

Strength training reduces the “bad” cholesterol and cardiovascular training increases the “good” cholesterol in your blood, both of which are useful for improving your blood cholesterol profile.