L et’s take a look at a box of Cheerios and walk through the three major parts of the food label: the front of the package, the ingredients list, and the nutrition facts table.
1. Front of the Package - this area contains marketing and nutrition claims.
The front of the package is where you would notice most claims being made. Here, we can see words such as naturally flavored and whole grain first. In other cases, you may see claims such as good source of iron, gluten-free, reduced sodium, oat fibre can help lower cholesterol, etc. These claims can be categorized into two groups:
a. Nutrient content claims
These claims are useful in helping you find foods that contain a nutrient that you want either more or less of. For example, packages that state “good source of iron” or “reduced sodium” are making a claim about the nutrient content in the food.
b. Health claims
Health claims are those such as “oat fibre can help lower cholesterol” or “psyllium helps to stimulate the breakdown of cholesterol”. These claims on food labels provide you with the potential health effects of the food product when it is consumed as part of a balanced eating pattern.
Some of these claims can be informative, but others may be more for marketing and trying to convince you that a product is better than others. Vague claims on a product’s packaging often do not provide useful guidance. Words such as “healthy”, “made with real fruit”, and “smart” are not very informative or specific. Thankfully, you can check the ingredients list as well as the nutrition label to make an educated choice.
2. Ingredients list
The list of ingredients is helpful to identify what the product is made most of. The ingredients are listed by weight from largest to smallest, meaning that the first ingredient listed makes up the most of that product. In this case, the first ingredient is whole grain oats as claimed! The next two main ingredients in Cheerios are sugar and cornstarch. If sugar was the first ingredient, that would mean that the cereal contained more sugar than it does oats.
This list can be helpful if you need to check if a food product has a certain ingredient, in the case of intolerances or allergies. At the end of the ingredient list, you’ll often notice a food allergen precautionary statement that starts with “contains” or “may contain” and will list any common allergens that may be in that product. You can also use the list of ingredients to identify the sources of certain nutrients. For example, sugars can be found naturally (e.g. raisins or fruit) or added. In this Cheerios example, the sugars are from sugar/golden sugar, honey, and golden syrup.
We’ll often hear people say “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it”, but just because a long or complicated word is used doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for your health. Many safe and beneficial ingredients have long scientific names. If you look at our ingredient list, the word tocopherols may cause you to panic for a moment, but this is simply vitamin E. Another example is Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, which is just vitamin B6.
3. Nutrition facts table
The nutrition facts table helps you understand what is in your food and allows you to make informed food choices. You don’t need to check the nutrition facts table on every product you buy, that would make grocery shopping and eating very stressful and tedious! However, this table can help when you are comparing products. For example, when you’re trying to get more of a certain nutrient, like comparing yogurts to choose one that is higher in protein and calcium. Or when you’re trying to eat less of a certain nutrient, like comparing frozen burgers to choose the one that has less saturated fat or sodium.
Most nutrition facts tables display the serving size, calories and nutrients and the % daily value.
In our case…
Serving size: ¾ cup
The serving size is NOT a recommended amount of food that you should eat. Every body is different and needs different amounts of food each day. It simply tells you the amount of food that was used to calculate the values you see on the nutrition facts table. The serving size can help you determine how much of a nutrient you are getting in your meal.
Calories in that serving size: 110
Calories are simply a unit of energy and our bodies require a different amount of calories each day. Counting calories can be tedious and negatively impact our relationship with food and mental health. I recommend ignoring this number as it does not provide any information on the health benefits of this product.
% Daily Value (Percent Daily Values): 10% Vitamin A, 25% Iron, 50% Folic Acid
The % DV shows you how much this specific serving size has of that nutrient based on the recommended daily intake for vitamins and minerals.
5% DV or less means that this product contains a little bit of that nutrient.
15% DV or more means that this product contains a lot of that nutrient.
You can use the %DV of two products to choose one based on your personal goals. You can look for a product that has more nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, etc. or is lower in sodium or saturated fats.
In the end, don’t get too hung up on reading every nutrition label or worrying about the numbers, especially the calories. The label is there for more information if you need it, but remember that your grocery shopping experience should be quick, stress free, and simple!
Written by Samira Razmjou and Liz Powell, RD
Health Canada. (2010a, July 28). Serving size. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/serving-size.html
Health Canada. (2010b, July 29). Percent daily value. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/percent-daily-value.html