What is a food label?
Food labels are found on packaged food to help you make informed food choices.
What can food labels tell you?
- Help you make informed choices for healthy living
- Help you better manage special diets where nutrition plays an important role
- Help you better judge the nutritional value of more foods
- Allow you to compare foods more easily
The following guide is based on the Canadian food label.
What’s on the label?
- The Nutrition Facts table
- The ingredient list
- Optional nutrition or health claims
By law, most packaged foods must be labelled with a Nutrition Facts table which gives you information on:
An ingredient list must list all the ingredients in a food by weight starting with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least. Allergen information is mandatory on food labels as part of the ingredient list or on a ‘Contains’ or ‘May Contain’ list.
Some packaged food may also have nutrition and health claims. These claims can describe the amount of a nutrient in a food, for example: "low fat” or make statements about the effects of a certain food consumed on health.
How to read a label:
All information on the nutrition label is based on a specific amount of food, referred to as the serving size.
The serving size allows you to:
- Understand how much of a nutrient you are eating
- Compare nutrients and calories between 2 similar packaged food products
- Compare the serving size on the package to the amount that you eat.
If you eat the serving size shown on the Nutrition Facts table you will get the amount of calories and nutrients that are listed. It is important to make sure the serving sizes are the same when comparing two similar foods. Here’s an example:
Serving size - 125 mL
Serving size - 250 mL
Fibre 2 g
Fibre 2 g
To compare the two soups correctly, the serving sizes must be the same. If you were to double the serving size of Canned Soup A to 250 mL (to match Canned Soup B), the amount of fibre would also double to 4 grams.
Remember; always compare the serving size to the amount of food you actually eat.
Look at the calories on the Nutrition Facts table.
Calories tell you how much energy you get from one serving of a packaged food. The amount of calories you will get will depend on how much you eat in relation to the serving size on the Nutrition Facts table. Carbohydrates, protein and fat are all made up of calories. Consuming too many calories, no matter where they come from could cause weight gain.
Percent daily value (% DV)
Percent daily value (% DV) is a simple way of finding out if one serving of food has a little or a lot of a nutrient. It is based on recommendations for a healthy diet and represents the contribution (from 0% to 100%) the food makes towards the particular nutrient’s recommended intake for Canadians. Depending on your age, gender and nutritional goals, you may need less or more than 100% of each of the nutrients listed. However, the % DV is a good benchmark to give you an idea of how much or how little of a nutrient a particular food contains. It is wise to strive for a lower % DV for some nutrients and a higher one for other nutrients. Use this percentage to compare the nutrient content of different foods: 5% of DV or less is a little and 15% DV or more is a lot of the nutrient.
Here’s an example:
Serving size: ½ cup
Serving size: ½ cup
Vitamin C - 10%
Vitamin C - 20%
Fruit Cocktail B has more vitamin C because its % DV is higher. If you consume fruit cocktail B, you will be getting 20% of the recommended intake of vitamin C for the day.
Some nutrients on the food label do not have a % DV. These include:
- Sugars: The World Health Organization (WHO) has released “free” sugar intake recommendations for adults and children. Free sugars are sugars that can be found in processed foods, jams and jellies, or sweetened beverages. The WHO strongly recommends that daily sugar intake be less than 10% of an individual’s total daily calories. The WHO also recommends that reducing sugar intake to less than 5% of the total daily calories would provide additional health benefits (this equates to approximately 25 grams or 6 teaspoons per day).
- Protein: the amount of protein Canadians consume is generally enough, so there is no %DV
Nutrition claims are optional, and are based on scientific evidence under Health Canada regulations. There are two types of claims: nutrient content claims and health claims. Nutrient content claims refer to specific nutrients, for example ‘good source of fiber’. Health claims refer to the effect of food on health. The following are examples of health-related claims:
- A healthy diet low in sodium and high in potassium — may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
- A healthy diet adequate in calcium and vitamin D — may reduce the risk of osteoporosis. This connection is very well established, compared to more recent claims related to lower risk of cancer, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.
- A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fat — may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- A healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit — may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.
- Food labels are reliable sources of nutrition information that can help you make informed choices for healthy living.
- All information on the nutrition label is based on a specific amount of food called the serving size. When you compare products, ensure that the serving sizes are the same.
- When comparing foods, use percent daily values (% DV) to find out if a food has a little or a lot of a nutrient. Choose foods with lower amounts of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. Choose foods with higher fiber vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium
- Health claims can help influence your food choices and in turn potentially lower the risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases.