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Be a label expert Part 1: Anatomy of a label

Information on a label is there to help you make informed decisions...

...about the food you choose to provide for you and your family. Food labels make it easier for us to compare products as well as increase or decrease certain ingredients or nutrients. Becoming a label reader can also make it easier for you to manage certain health concerns, even some diseases. 

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When it comes to using labels to help you make choices about what you and your family should or shouldn’t eat there are 3 key parts:

  1. Ingredients List
  2. Nutrition Facts Table
  3. Nutrition Claims

1. Ingredients List

This provides a complete list of the ingredients that are in the food. Ingredients must be listed by weight from most to least. This means that ingredients listed first are found in the highest quantity and ingredients at the end of the list are found in the lowest quantity. The ingredients list is a source of information for people who wish to avoid certain ingredients based on allergy or other health reasons, or even personal beliefs.

2. Nutrition Facts Table

This provides you with information about calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, and some vitamins and minerals that your body would obtain by consuming that food. The amounts declared are based on a “reference amount” of the food, shown near the top or left of the table. For many of these nutrients, the information is provided in both absolute amounts and Percent Daily Value (% Daily Value, or % DV). The % DV demonstrates if the reference amount of the food is high or low in a nutrient. A % DV of 0% would represent a very low source of a nutrient, while a % DV of 100% would represent a very high source of a nutrient. For more information please visit our article Be a label expert Part 2: Nutrition Facts Table.

3. Nutrition Claims

Health Canada sets rules regarding what nutrition claims can be made on a label or advertisement. There are claims that highlight a nutrition feature of a food. These are called “Nutrient Content Claims.” Some examples include “trans fat free” or “source of omega-3.” There are also claims that highlight a relationship between diet and disease. These are called “Health Claims.” One example would be “a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease.” For more information please visit our article Be a label expert Part 3: Nutrition Claims.

Beware of the Reference Amount!

When you are reviewing a label it is important to compare the reference amount on the label to the amount you are going to eat. This is especially important if you are trying to lose weight since portion sizes are very critical for managing calorie balance for weight loss. The reference amount of food stated in the nutrition facts table is NOT necessarily a recommended serving size and may not correspond to the Canada Food Guide’s definition of one serving. Reference amounts are actually joint Health Canada and industry agreed-to standard sizes. For example, for all packaged and boxed crackers in Canada the standard reference amount is 20g. This allows people to easily and accurately compare nutrition information for all varieties of boxed crackers against one another. For more information please visit our articles Be a label expert Part 2: Nutrition Facts Table and Be a label expert Part 3: Nutrition Claims.

Looking for More Information?

Dietitians of Canada www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada www.healthcanada.gc.ca/nutritionlabelling

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation