Understanding nutrition labels

March 1, 2024

How often do you look at the nutrition label before you buy a product at the grocery store? Intended to help Canadians make informed food choices, the label is full of valuable nutrition information including calories, carbs, fat, protein and vitamins. But in our fast-paced world taking the time to stop, read through and fully understand the information the label provides can be a challenge. With a few simple tips you can make your next visit to the grocery store easy and the food choices you make healthy.  

Nutrition label basics

“Learning how to read food labels can give you the knowledge and tools to make informed food choices that support your health and your goals,” says Dina Daniello-Santiago, a registered dietitian with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program.  

Labelling became mandatory in the early 2000s. The core information required on most products includes:

  • serving size
  • calories
  • per cent daily value (%DV)
  • nutrients such as fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, potassium and iron.  

The labels are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet which is considered the standard for most adults. You may need to eat more calories or fewer calories depending on your personal needs.

At first glance, the label can seem like an overwhelming amount of information. So, where do you start?  

“The entire label is useless if you don’t check out the serving size, because the calories and nutrient amounts listed are all based on that serving size,” says Daniello-Santiago.  

Serving size can be confusing because some math is required.  

“If you end up eating two servings' worth of yogurt, you'll be consuming double the amount of nutrients (i.e. fat, fiber, protein) and calories listed,” Daniello-Santiago says.  

Another essential part of the label – but a common area of confusion – is the percent daily value, or %DV. The %DV shows how much or how little of a specific nutrient is in a serving and how it contributes to your daily diet.

Daniello-Santiago recommends following the 5% & 15% rule:

  • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
  • 15% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
  • Anything in between is considered moderate

The %DV helps you to compare products and ensure you are choosing items that have substantial nutritional value.  

Who should read nutrition labels

“While it is important for everyone to have a basic level of understanding of nutrition labels, some special populations will especially benefit from referencing a label when making food choices,” says Daniello-Santiago.

If you have health considerations such as high cholesterol, diabetes or a heart condition, then checking the label can be essential to managing your diet.

“If you have food allergies or sensitivities, then be sure to read the ingredients and allergen information below the ingredient list,” she says. “This will help you avoid wasting your time reading through a nutrition label that you’ll end up putting back on the shelf.”

She adds that allergens must always be clearly stated on food labels when present as ingredients or components of ingredients. They will appear in the ingredient list or in a "Contains" statement located after the ingredient list. A “May Contain” precautionary statement, which warns consumers that there may be a risk of cross contamination with allergens, may also be present.

Ingredients can change over time, so checking nutrition labels every time you buy a product is a good idea if you have allergy concerns.

What to watch for

There are aspects of nutrition labels that require caution. Daniello-Santiago highlights three areas:

  • Watch for the order of ingredients: The ingredients are in descending order so that the one in the highest amount is listed first. Therefore, a chocolate-covered granola bar, which pretends to be healthy but has chocolate chips listed in the top three ingredients, may not be the best option.
  • Don’t be misled: Claims on the front of a package are often used to lure people into buying products. Some of these labels, however, are highly misleading. Quite often, health claims lead people to believe a product is healthier than a similar product without any health claims. For example, many high-sugar breakfast cereals will have a claim stating “whole-grain”. Despite the information listed on the label, these products are not healthy breakfast choices because of their high sugar content. This makes it hard for consumers to choose healthy options without a thorough review of the ingredient list.  
  • Don’t be too restrictive: It is best not to have an “all-or-nothing” mentality when assessing foods. If a food contains a few teaspoons of added sugar but at the same time provides an impressive %DV for key nutrients, such as fiber, protein and calcium, it is still worth having a place in your diet.  

Ultimately, your diet should include a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains while avoiding excessive sodium, sugars, carbohydrates and highly processed foods.  

“When it comes to eating healthy, whole foods should always be the priority,” says Daniello-Santiago. “However, there are plenty of prepared and packaged foods that are incredibly good for you. Understanding how to read those food labels can help you make more informed food choices.”

Counselling support from Manitoba Blue Cross

If you’re looking to improve your nutrition with a registered dietitian, we can help. Manitoba Blue Cross members with Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program coverage can get nutrition counselling support. Begin the process here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

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