“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a great expression reminding us not to judge something by its appearance alone. I think it’s a good motto to live by, except when it comes to picking packaged food items.
The “cover” of packaged food items gives us the information we need to make healthier choices. There are three different parts: the Nutrition Facts Table (NFT), the ingredient list and nutrition claims. The NFT and ingredient list are mandatory. The nutrition claims are optional.
The Nutrition Facts Table (NFT)
The NFT provides the amount of calories and 13 core nutrients in a specific serving of food. The percent daily value (%DV) is also provided for most nutrients as an easy way to tell if the food contains a little or a lot of a specific nutrient. Using this information, we can also compare products to find one that most fits our needs.
Nutrients you may want more of include: calcium, iron, fibre, vitamins A and C. Nutrients you may want less of include: fat, saturated and trans fats and sodium.
An ingredient list is a complete list of all ingredients in a food. They are listed in order of weight, from most to least. In other words, the food contains the most of the first ingredient and the least of the last ingredient listed.
This list is helpful if you’re trying to avoid particular ingredients because of an allergy or intolerance or as a tool for understanding what’s in your food.
Nutrition claims must follow Health Canada’s rules to make sure they’re consistent and not misleading. There are two kinds of nutrition claims: nutrient content claims and health claims. This information is much more general than the Nutrition Facts Table or ingredient list and is best used in combination with other information.
A nutrient content claim gives you an idea of the amount of a nutrient in a food; for example, “A good source of fibre.” This can help you choose foods with nutrients you may want more or less of.
A health claim is a statement about the helpful effects of a food; for example, “A healthy diet containing foods high in potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.” Health claims may help you choose foods that reduce the risk of chronic disease.
If you have questions about how to read a label, call 8-1-1 and ask to speak with a registered dietitian. They’re available to answer your questions Monday to Thursday, 8am to 8pm, and Friday, 8am to 5pm.