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Reading food labels can help us make healthy and safe food choices. But there’s so much information it can sometimes be confusing. Here’s how to read food labels and figure out if a food is healthy or not.
Food and nutrition information labels: what and where they are
Food labels are included on almost all packaged food products, except for fresh foods such as vegetables and fruit.
Food labels include:
- A Nutrition Facts table. This gives you information about:
- serving size
- vitamins and minerals
- the Percent Daily Value (%DV)
- An ingredient list. This lists all the ingredients in a food by weight, beginning with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least; and
- Some packaged foods may also have labels about nutrition claims. These claims describe the amount of a nutrient in a food or the positive effects of a food on your health, (e.g. high fibre, low sodium).
Things to look out for: calories, fat, sugar and sodium
Calories are the amount of energy in foods. Fats, protein and carbohydrates all provide the body with the energy needed to function and help you go about your daily activities.
Fat, sugar and sodium in disguise
Manufacturers can list fat, sugar or sodium content under different names. This means that these food ingredients might seem ‘hidden’ on the ingredient list. Whatever they’re called, foods high in fat, sugar and sodium are generally less healthy options.
Fat might also be called beef fat, butter, shortening, coconut, palm oil, cream, lard, vegetable oils hydrogenated oils, or partially hydrogenated fats and oils.
Sugar might be called brown sugar, cane and beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, maltodextrin, agave syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, and syrup.
Sodium might be listed as baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, onion salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), brine, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bisulfate, or soy sauce.
Many foods contain food additives. There are strict guidelines about the way food additives are used in foods and labelled on food products. All food additives must be shown on the ingredients list.
You can get a list of food additive names, numbers and common uses from the Health Canada Food Additives website.
Tip: A very small number of people are sensitive to some food additives, most commonly artificial colours, preservatives and flavour enhancers. If you think your child might have a sensitivity, talk to your health care provider about food allergies and intolerances.
Health claims on food labels
Food makers can make health claims about certain nutrients, such as calcium, fibre, and fat that are found naturally in foods. The health claims must be balanced and based on current, reliable scientific studies and must be approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Health claims may be statements like "This food is a good source of calcium. A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D may reduce the risk of osteoporosis," or "Development of cancer depends on many factors. A healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit may reduce the risk of some types of cancers."
Just because a food label has a health claim does not mean that the food is healthy for you. For example, a food that is labelled as "a good source of calcium" may still be high in fat, sodium, or sugar.
Terms you can trust
Terms on labels are legally defined for food companies. Phrases such as "low-fat," "low-sodium," "light" or "lite," "free" (as in "fat-free"), and "organic" are now standardized for all foods. If a food uses one of these terms, you can trust that it meets the criteria for that term.
- Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories
- Low-calorie: Less than 40 calories
- Fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat
- Lean: Meat, poultry, or seafood that has not been ground and contains 10% or less fat
- Extra lean: Meat, poultry, or seafood that has not been ground and contains 7.5% or less fat
- Light: 25% less calories
- Low-fat: 3 grams or less of fat
- Low sodium: Less than 140 milligrams of sodium
What does “best before” date mean?
Many foods have a “best before” date printed on the label. The best before date does not guarantee food safety, but it gives you information about the freshness and likely shelf-life of the unopened food product. Once the package has been opened, the food should be stored properly and eaten within a few days.
You cannot always tell if food is safe by how it looks smells or tastes. Always throw away any food after the “best before” date.
© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.
Resources & Links:
Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Date Labelling on Pre-packaged Foods
Health Canada: Food Additives
Health Canada: Food Allergy and Intolerances
Food Safety: Instructions on Food Labels
Health Claims on Food Labels
Healthy Canadians: Healthy Canadians Food Labels
Learn from the Label