Using Food Labels to Make Healthy Choices


The number of foods with nutrition labelling has risen dramatically over the years as manufacturers have responded to the consumer’s interest in making informed choices for healthy eating.  Food labels are important for comparing products, knowing the nutritional value of a food, and managing special diets.  We have talked about the importance of food labels in the “Decreasing the Fat and Increasing the Fibre” nutrition session. The three main sources of information on a product package are the list of ingredients, nutrition claims such as “low in fat” or “source of fibre”, and the nutrition information panel.


List of Ingredients


The list of ingredients is mandatory on the labels of all packaged foods.  The ingredients are always listed in descending order by weight.  Therefore, the first ingredient on the list is the one that is present in the greatest amount.


Nutrition Claims


Nutrition claims are descriptive terms about certain nutrients in a food product.  If the manufacturer makes such a claim about the product, then the details must be provided on the package.  Some examples:


·        Calorie reduced = 50% fewer calories than the regular product

·        Low calorie = less than 15 calories per serving

·        Low fat = less than 3 grams of fat per serving

·        Low in saturated fat = at most 2 grams of saturated fat per serving

·        Source of fibre = at least 2 grams of fibre per serving

·        High source of fibre = at least 4 grams of fibre per serving

Very high source of fibre = at least 6 grams of fibre per serving


Some claims are a bit confusing for the consumer.  First of all, “light or lite” can be used to describe various properties of the product.  While many of us may think light means low in fat or calories, it can also mean light in colour or light tasting.  Many manufacturers have responded by stating how many fewer calories are in the light product as compared to the regular product.  Secondly, when cholesterol was getting a lot of bad press, many vegetable oils started to have the nutrition claim “cholesterol-free”.  In the “Decreasing the Fat and Increasing the Fibre” nutrition session, we discussed that vegetable oils never had cholesterol in the first place.  Only animal-based products contain cholesterol.  Even so, it is the saturated fat content that has the greater impact on raising blood cholesterol, not dietary cholesterol.  Finally, some consumers think that the claim “no sugar added or unsweetened” means no sugar, period.  However, it actually means no extra sugar has been added, but the product may contain naturally present sugar.  This is readily seen on fruit juices labelled as sweetened or unsweetened.


Nutrition Information Panel


The nutrition information panel lists the amount of energy (Calories), protein, fat, and carbohydrate for one serving of the food.  This serving size is always defined on the label.  Some products list the different types of fat (polyunsaturates, monounsaturates, saturates, and cholesterol) and types of carbohydrate (sugars, starch, dietary fibre).  For vitamins and minerals in the food product, the panel will state how much of the daily requirement for each particular nutrient is met with one serving.  For example, if the product supplies 62% of your daily requirement of vitamin A, it is a rich source of vitamin A.  The exceptions are sodium and potassium, which are listed with the number of milligrams.



Some complaints about the nutrition information panel have been that it is not consistent from product to product and is hard to read.  In response to consumer concerns, Health Canada will be replacing the “Nutrition Information” panel with the “Nutrition Facts” box.  The percent daily value of all major nutrients will be stated.  This percent daily value is based on the following reference intakes.



·        65 grams of fat

·        20 grams of saturated + trans fat

·        300 mg cholesterol

·        300 mg carbohydrate

·        25 grams of fibre

·        2400 mg sodium

·        3500 mg potassium

·        other vitamins and minerals (based on the minimum requirements for persons aged two and older)





Due to the concern over trans fat, they will now be part of the label.  An example of the English version of the Nutrition Facts label is shown.








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