What’s in a Label? Reading between the Lines


The nutrition information found on food packages can help grocery shoppers make more- informed choices. Learning how to read a food label – and more importantly, how to understand a food label – can help you shop smarter, eat healthier and make more-nutritious choices. Examples of nutrient content claims:

Source of fibre

Low in fat


No sugar added

Low calorie

Trans fat-free

Source of calcium

The regulated label information

On a recent trip to the grocery store, a shopper looking at a low-fat product was overheard saying, “Why should I believe this is really low in fat? They’re just saying that to sell more products.” This shopper is mistaken. Claims like “low in fat” are regulated and cannot be used unless they meet certain conditions set out by the government, as outlined in the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. These regulations ensure that you can trust the Nutrition Facts table and the nutrition and health claims found on packaged foods. The following food label information falls under these regulations:

Nutrition Facts table

With its standard formats, the Nutrition Facts table is easy to find, read and understand. Packaged foods must show the amount of calories and the amount of 13 core nutrients for a specific serving size of food. Some products may show other nutrients beyond the core 13, such as vitamin D or omega-3 fat.


Nutrient content claims

Some product packages contain phrases to highlight a nutrition feature of a food, such as “saltfree” or “source of iron.” These are called nutrient content claims. Products must meet specific criteria in order to make these claims. When grocery shopping, you can use these claims along with the Nutrition Facts table to help you make better choices.

Health claims

Certain diet-related health claims and biological role claims can be made on packaged foods that meet strict criteria. Diet-related health claims refer to the reduction of the risk of disease. Look for the following helpful diet-related health claims currently permitted on packaged foods:

  • A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D and regular physical activity help to achieve strong bones and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • A healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer.
  • 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.

Biological role claims refer to the maintenance or support of specific body functions. An example is “DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, supports the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves.”

Remember that if a nutrition or health claim is used, the Nutrition Facts table must also be given. While claims are a good starting point, the Nutrition Facts gives more complete information about the nutrient value of a food.

Symbols: highly visible tools

CCFN’s 2006 Tracking Nutrition Trends (TNT) survey found that 80 percent of Canadians want food packages to clearly indicate products that are “healthier.” The key to finding healthier products is reading food labels and knowing which information to rely on. The Nutrition Facts table is reliable, but it’s not the first item that grocery shoppers see as it usually appears on the back or side of a package. Many symbols are now seen on the front of packaged foods. Of Canadians who read food labels, almost half (47 percent) look for these types of symbols when making food choices.

How to use symbols wisely

Symbols can be helpful because they bring your attention to products that may be healthier choices. If used correctly, these symbols can help you make wise choices at the grocery store.

To use symbols correctly, you’ll need to understand what they mean. Is the symbol highlighting one nutrient, like fibre? Or does it include an overview of many nutrients, like salt, sugar and fibre?

Be sure not to rely solely on the symbol as your criteria for making a purchase. Instead, use the symbol along with the Nutrition Facts table and list of ingredients to get the real story on a food. For example, if a symbol indicates that the product is a good choice, check the Nutrition Facts table to see the actual sodium, fat, sugar and fibre content before you buy it.

Some advice to consider when looking at symbols on packaged foods

Symbols come from a variety of food companies and non-profit organizations so they do not share one standard set of nutrition criteria. This means that the health benefits of two products cannot be compared using only the symbols as a guide. The Nutrition Facts tables should be used to make direct comparisons.

The symbols may point out some health benefits of a product but may not reflect other less healthy features. For example, a product may have a symbol to show that it is low in fat and high in fibre, but the product could also be high in salt, which the symbol may not show.

Some products, such as baked chips or lower-fat cookies, may carry a symbol to indicate that they are a healthier choice than their full-fat counterparts. Before you buy, remember to consider how the food fits into your overall diet. Portion sizes are still important even if it’s a “healthier” choice.

Products with symbols may not be the only healthy choices in a particular category of foods. Many products without symbols are healthy choices as well so check the Nutrition Facts tables before you make a purchase.

As a general rule, choose foods that have LESS:

  • Fat and cholesterol: Look for lower overall fat content and foods with as little saturated and trans fat as possible.
  • Sodium: Sodium, or salt, is often used in packaged foods to enhance flavour and prolong shelf-life. Look for foods with as little sodium as possible.
  • Sugars: Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating foods lower in sugar to help limit extra calories in the diet. No % DV has been set because there’s no recognized guideline on the amount of sugars that should be consumed by healthy populations. The amount on the label includes naturally occurring and added sugars. Compare foods and choose the ones that have less sugar.

Choose foods that have MORE:

  • Fibre: We need 25 to 35 grams of fibre each day so choose foods that have a higher fibre content.
  • Vitamins and minerals: These essential nutrients are factors in the maintenance of good health.

Looking at claims and symbols is a good starting point when trying to make more-informed food choices. Also remember to check the Nutrition Facts table and list of ingredients to get the most complete information about a food’s nutrient content.

Developed by the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition (CCFN)www.ccfn.ca 08/2008. CCFN is a multi-sectoral trusted voice for science and evidence-based food and nutrition policy and information in Canada.

Photo © Micro10x


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