Food Labels 101

For people who know how to read them properly, food labels are an important source of nutritional information about the foods we eat.

These labels provide:

  • A Nutrition Facts table
  • An ingredient list
  • Nutrition claims

The Nutrition Facts table

The Nutrition Facts table is an indispensable tool to help you make wise food choices.

How to read the table

Serving size

All of the information on the Nutrition Facts table is based on a specific amount of food: the reference serving size found at the top of the table. You must compare this amount to what you actually eat and adjust the nutritional value accordingly.

In this example, the reference serving size is 1 1/4 cup or 30 g of cereal. If you normally eat 2 1/2 cups of cereal, you need to multiply the information on the able by two.

Percentage

The % Daily Value (% DV) lets you know whether a food contains a little or a lot of a nutrient. It tells you what percentage of your daily needs is met by the reference serving size.

Notice that the % DV is indicated for the cereal alone and also when served with milk.

Usually, when a reference serving size provides less than 5% DV, the food has little of the nutrient; 15% DV or more, a lot of the nutrient.

The % DV lets your quickly compare two products, as long as they have the same reference serving size.

Amount of carbohydrates and the food’s effect on glycemia

To know how a food will affect your blood glucose (sugar) levels, you must check the total carbohydrates on the table. Carbohydrates include fibre, sugars and starch.

Since fibre has no effect on your blood glucose (sugar) levels and is included in the carbohydrates total, you can subtract it. In this table, 1 1/4 cups of cereal contains 26 g of carbohydrates, less 1 g of fibre, or 25 g of carbohydrates that will impact your glycemia. 

carbohydrates = fibre + sugars + starch

Other nutrients

Even though they have no direct impact on your blood glucose (sugar) levels, other nutrients listed on the table are equally important for your health. Hence, you need to check the amount of lipids and sodium for your cardiovascular health, while calcium is important for bone health.

The tableau below offers practical advice to help you make better choices at the grocery store by paying particular attention to certain nutrients.

Fat

  • Saturated
  • Trans

Look for products containing few lipids (total fat) and as few saturated fats as possible.

Avoid products with trans fats.

Sodium

Most of the time, buy foods containing less than 5% DV for sodium.

Limit foods whose % DV is higher than 15%.

Carbohydrates

  • Fibre
  • Sugars
  • Starch*

The term “carbohydrates” refers to the total of three main types of carbohydrates: fibre,
sugars and starch.

  • Fibre has no effect on blood glucose (sugar) levels. You can subtract it from the total for a more precise carbohydrate calculation.
  • Sugars can be from natural sources or added. They affect your blood glucose (sugar) levels and are included in the total carbohydrate count.

*The food industry is not required to indicate the amount of starch on the Nutrition Facts
table. You will rarely find it indicated but it is already included in the total carbohydrate
count.

Look for foods containing more fibre and less sugar.

Adapted from the Canadian Diabetes Association table: Understanding the nutrition label.

Ingredient list

The ingredient list shows all the ingredients in a packaged food and is crucial when you have food allergies or intolerances.

The list completes the Nutrition Facts table because it indicates the source of the various nutrients.

For example, it is interesting to know that the high amount of sugar in a cereal comes from the dried fruit rather than from added white sugar. The same applies for the types of fat, the sources of fibre, etc.

Ingredients are listed in descending order based on their weight in the product’s recipe. Thus, the first ingredient on the list is present in the largest amounts. For example, if salt or sugar is at the top of the ingredients list, that means there is a great deal of it in the product.

Nutritional claims

Nutritional claims can tell you at a glance about the amount of a particular nutrient (for example: “a good source of…”, “reduced…”) or the health benefits of an ingredient or food (for example: “reduces the risk of heart disease” or “helps reduce blood cholesterol”).

That being said, claims tend to highlight the positive features of a product and rarely the negative. You need to be on guard, and also read the other nutritional information.

Claiming that a food is “sodium reduced” does not mean that the food is nutritious. Many “low sodium” and “low fat” foods are high in sugars.

Therefore, be cautious, and don’t rely solely on the claims displayed on the product packaging.

For more information, visit Health Canada’s food-labelling webpage

 

Research and text: Diabetes Québec Team of HealthCare Professionals

May 2014 (updated on July 2018)

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