Reading the Nutrition Facts on Labels

Reading the nutrition facts on labels can help you decide whether or not a food should be in your grocery cart or not.

In Canada most prepackaged foods are required to carry the information, but fresh fruits and vegetables, raw meat, fish and poultry – excluding ground – foods prepared or processed in a grocery store, coffee, tea, herbs and spices and alcohol are not required to have a nutrition facts label.

Here are some guidelines to help you decipher what you’re reading on the label:

Serving size:

Start at the top of the label and the first thing you will see is the serving size.

This is the key to the whole package.

What is important to know, is that this amount is what the manufacturer deems as an appropriate serving size.

Unfortunately for us, there is no standardization, so a serving size of one brand of soup can differ from another brand. This can make it tricky when trying to choose the healthiest soup on the shelf. One brand may look better at first glance, but once you compare the serving sizes, that brand may not make it into your cart.  Make sure that you’re looking at the nutrient content for the same amount when comparing brands. Aren’t you glad you had to learn math?


The next listed are the calories in that particular serving. The number may not look bad at first glance, but after you take into consideration the serving size, this amount may or may not shock you. Check out the calories and take into consideration that size matters.

The Percentage Daily Value:

Right below the calories and on the right hand side of the label is the percentage daily value (% Daily Value) that this specific food contributes towards your diet.

If you are a moderately active woman or a sedentary man who eats 2,000 calories a day, Health Canada basically created the % Daily Value based on your lifestyle. For the rest of the crowd, these percentages are there to give you an idea if that food is going to contribute to your good health.

Then the core nutrients as set down by Health Canada:

The standard Nutrition Facts table requires that 13 core nutrients be listed. They are:  calories, fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, calcium, iron and Vitamins A & C.

These 13 nutrients were selected to always appear in the Nutrition Facts table because health professionals and scientists consider them to be important to long term health.

The facts table can help you compare similar products more easily, check out the health content, and if you are on a special diet such as a person living with diabetes, to make healthier choices.

First up – Fat

First the total amount of fat per serving is listed. Right below this the fat is broken down into two types: saturated and trans fat content. The % Daily Value is lumped together in this line because Health Canada states that both of these types of fat have a negative effect on blood cholesterol levels.

Some labels will carry the amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats just below the saturated and trans fats.

In general choose foods with lower saturated fat contents. Foods that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are better choices.

Avoid trans fats as much as possible, unless they are the naturally occurring type found in low fat dairy foods.


The amount of cholesterol must be listed, although the % Daily Value is optional.

Note that it is the saturated fats and trans fats in food, not the cholesterol in food that are the main contributors to elevated levels of blood cholesterol.

The recommendation is to consume no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.


This is one category I love to check out when I am buying packaged foods.

Canadians consume way too much salt which can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and kidney disease.

Health Canada recommends that Canadians do not exceed 2300 mg per day. As of 2010 the Sodium Working Group (SWG), chaired by a representative of Health Canada, is looking at newer guidelines. They recommend that Canadians strive for 1500 mg per day.

With these newer numbers on the radar, reading the amount sodium on labels can come as a complete wake-up call. Some soups have as much as 1350 mg of sodium per serving which is just shy of the newer recommendations for the entire day.


The total amount of carbohydrates are listed, followed by fibre and sugars.

There are three different types of carbohydrates: starches, fibre, and sugar.

The number listed beside the carbohydrates represents the total amount of these three. Persons living with diabetes rely on the total grams of carbohydrates so that they can calculate their daily intake.

Skip past fibre and check out the grams of sugar present.

Divide this number listed by four to see how many teaspoons of sugar the product contains. For example if a serving of cookies, which is usually two, contains 12 grams of sugar then dividing by 4 will give you a total of 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving. (For long term health, try not to exceed 10 teaspoons of added sugar per day.) Taking that same cookie example- eat six cookies and you’re at 9 teaspoons of added sugar for that day, adding a can of pop will send your sugar consumption out of the ball park. (Note: there isn’t a % Daily Value for sugar listed on the label because sugar isn’t considered a healthy choice.)


There are 2 types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Most labels only list total fibre. Most of us aren’t even close to the recommended 25 to 38 grams per day. Buy packaged foods like crackers, cereal, and cereal bars that contain at least 2 grams per serving but start aiming for foods that contain 4 to 6 grams per serving.


According to Canada’s Food Guide the average female should aim for about 150 gm per day, the average male should aim for 225 grams per day. There isn’t a % Daily Value for protein because most Canadians get an adequate amount.

Vitamin A & C, Calcium and Iron:

There are only four vitamins and minerals that have to appear on the label. Choose foods that have the highest % Daily Value.

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