Nutrition Labels – What do they tell you?

There are generally two types of claims that are made on pre-packaged foods - nutrient content claims (how much of a particular nutrient the food contains) and health claims (symbols, logos or statements that suggest the food offers a particular health benefit e.g. ‘heart smart’). Nutrient claims are developed by government food/health department experts, while health claims are typically developed by food manufacturers and are expected to be truthful and not misleading, although this isn’t always the case. While health claims are not mandatory, nutrition labeling is for all pre-packaged foods.

Nutrition labels allow us to make food choices that will maximize the amount of nutrients that are good for us (e.g. vitamins A and C, calcium, iron) and to minimize ones that are not (e.g. trans fats and excess sodium). Nutrition labels are listed on the back or side of packaged foods under the heading “Nutrition Facts” and include information about the serving size, number of calories, the amount of core nutrients, and the percent daily value (% DV) of the core nutrients per serving size.

Let’s take a look at closer look at each of these;

Serving Size

The serving size is listed at the very top of the nutrition label. It dictates the number of calories and the amounts of all the nutrients listed on the label. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easy to compare similar types of foods. They are listed in grams (g) or mL (milliliters) as well as in a more familiar unit such as cups or number of pieces of the food. For instance, the serving size for a bread product would be listed as “Per 2 slices (64g)”.

When comparing nutritional information listed on food products, always make the comparison based on the weight (g) or volume (mL). This is because two similar products, for example crackers, can have very different weight when it comes to serving size depending on the size or density of the cracker.  For example a 24 gram serving size of crackers might translate into 9 crackers for smaller-sized ones and 4 crackers for larger-sized ones. By comparing the amount of food by actual weight or volume, you can be sure that you are comparing similar amounts of food. And remember, if you consume 2 servings, you have to double the calories and all other nutrient numbers on the label.

Calories

The number of calories listed indicates the amount of energy that is provided by one serving of the food.  This information is important to ensure that you do not consume to many or too few calories to maintain your health and weight. Generally, 40 calories is considered ‘low’, 100 calories is considered ‘moderate’ and 400 calories or more is considered ‘high’. The label will also tell you how many of the total calories of a serving size come from fat. Typically, you do not want more than 30% of your daily calories to come from fat.

Amount of Nutrients

There isn’t enough room on a food label to list all 50 nutrients. Nutrition labels will vary, however, there is a list of ‘core’ nutrients that are always listed and these include: calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The nutrients are listed in two main groups: those that most of us should limit appear first (total fat, saturated fat and trans fat, cholesterol and sodium) and those that we want to get enough of follow (e.g. vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, fiber).

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

This number helps determine if the packaged food is high or low in a specific nutrient by giving the percentage of the daily recommended intake of the nutrient contained in the food (based on daily food intake of 2,000 calories). For example, in Canada, the recommended daily intake for iron is 14mg. If a serving size of a particular food contains 2 mg of iron, then that food’s %DV for iron is 14% (2mg/14mg=14%). Knowing the %DV will help you compare and choose those products that will best help you achieve the daily recommended intake of the nutrients listed on the label. Note that a few nutrients, including protein, sugar and trans fat do not have a %DV.

For more information on this topic, including interactive learning tools and videos, you can visit the following websites:

For Canada: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/nutrition/cons/index-eng.php

For the U.S.A: http://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/consumerinformation/ucm078889.htm#twoparts

Understanding nutrition labels will allow you to make food choices that will optimize your health!


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