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Do You Know What Your Nutrition Labels Really Mean?

We’re always hearing people say “read the food labels,” but where should a person even start?

There are words that wouldn’t make sense to someone without a degree in science, daily percentages, measurements in milligrams, and a whole lot of information that if ignored could lead to a ballooning of your waistline.

As more and more food items become available in stores, understanding what’s written on the label is becoming more and more challenging. With the addition of media input it can make it near impossible to know what’s actually in the food you and your family are eating.

Don’t fret! I’m here to give you some pointers on reading labels so that you can make the best choices for your needs.

First, let’s start with some basics.

Nutrition Labels Rules state that prepackaged food has to have its ingredients listed and they are written in order of quantity with the greatest being first, and the least being last.

All foods also have to display a “Nutrition Facts” table which has its own laws about what should be found on it. The table has a serving size found at the top. The rest of the information is displayed in a standard order; from top to bottom it is: Calories, Fat, Saturated, Trans, Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbohydrate, Fibre, Sugars, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.

Calories and Serving Sizes Most people look at the number of calories first, which is totally fine as long as you’re also looking at the portion size. If the label tells you there’s 100 calories, but you eat three times the serving size, then your low calorie snack just took a giant hike that you might not have noticed.

Daily Value % Sometimes the information on the Nutrition Facts table that can be misleading is the Daily Value %. These values are based on a 2000 calorie diet, so if you’re not eating 2000 calories then these percentages aren’t right for you. This is especially true for your children.

The most important percentage to look out for is sodium. The sodium percentage is calculated based on a 2400 mg daily serving. This amount is actually more than should be consumed in a day. For adults the tolerable upper limit (which means the amount that should not be exceeded per day) is 2300 mg. However, the amount that we actually need per day is only 1500 mg. The best way to make sure you’re not going over is to ignore the Daily Value % and to just look at the mg amount found on the table.

Product Claims and Statements Another important tip to keep in mind is to be aware of product claims and statements. The word “nutritious”can be used on a food that contains at least a “source” of one nutrient permitted in the Nutrition Facts table. This can mean that the food isn’t actually as nutritious as you might think it is.

Another thing to be aware of is that even though a food item says ‘low fat’ doesn’t mean that it’s actually the best choice. Sometimes these low fat options have lots of added sugar or sodium to replace the flavour lost from removing the fat. It’s important to be aware of the potential for this. A great way to check is to look at the Nutrition Facts table, because it will tell you the amount of sugar and sodium found within the product.

Allergies and Intolerances Allergies and intolerances are becoming more and more of a concern as time passes. There are some fairly new laws pertaining to allergens. Some products may have a section that lists allergens by their most common name (for example “contains soy and nuts”). Allergens must be listed in either this section or in the ingredients list, but they don’t have to be in both. If allergens are something that you need to look out for, make sure you’re checking both places.

Educating yourself on what nutrition labels mean is an important part of your work to keep yourself healthy. By knowing what’s in your food you’ll always be able to ensure that you’re eating the right fuel for your body. Keep yourself informed and keep those pounds at bay!

There are specific laws that govern what is mandatory for labelling in each country. For more information, check out the website in your country.

**Edited for Repurpose by Taylor Brown, Associate Editor of Women Who Run It.

Chef Lisa Ruscica

After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, Chef Lisa Ruscica has over twenty-five years of work experience, beginning her career in the investment banking industry and more recently a graduate of the Chef Program and the Food & Nutrition Management Program at George Brown College. Lisa currently is a member of the Canadian Society of Food & Nutrition.

Comments (5)

  • Avatar

    Destiny Giakatis


    I never realized the daily value % was actually based on 2000 calorie diet. It is interesting to think that even if you are following the nutritional label that you still may be consuming more then you’re supposed to. Sodium percentages are always higher then necessary, especially for specific foods that are naturally saltier. This article goes to show how people can misread food labels and not even realize they are doing it.

    • Avatar

      Alex Kvaskov


      As well, it’s easy to over and underestimate the number of calories consumed and expended. A researcher from York University in Canada reports that people are not so good at estimating the number of calories they use while eating or working out.
      More details on that here: http://www.excal.on.ca/do-you-even-count-your-calories/

  • Avatar

    Teraya Smith


    I thought this article was super informational! I too had no idea that the daily value % was based on a 2000 calorie diet. I’ve always looked at the nutrition facts for sodium and calorie percentages but knowing what it really means puts things into a whole new perspective. Once people are educated they can find better ways to eat.

  • Avatar

    Jane Ranjan


    Thank you for this very informative article. I never realized that you should not only look at the number of calories, but also at the portion size. Nutritional labels can be very confusing and overwhelming, but with the proper education, people could learn how to understand them and maintain a healthy diet.

  • Avatar

    Cindy Van Arnam


    I’m of the opinion that we simply shouldn’t eat food that’s in a package with a label in the first place. I spend 99% of my time at a grocery store walking around the outside of the store. 90% of that time is spent in the produce section. If we stop buying packaged ‘food’ the requires a label we’ll all be better off anyway.

Comments are closed