Decoding your food labels

Food labels, also known as Nutrition Facts labels, can help you tell healthy foods from nutritional disasters. Most pre-packaged foods in Canada must come with a Nutrition Facts label. These labels tell you how many nutrients and calories are found in each serving of the food. The labels list:

  • Calories
  • Fat (including the unhealthy saturated and trans fats)
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Carbohydrates (including sugar and fibre)
  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron

The label lists both the amount per serving and the percentage of a recommended daily value (% DV). Looking at the % DV gives you an idea of how much of a particular nutrient the food contains relative to the total amount you should be getting in a day.

But there's more to the story. You've also got to look at the serving sizes and understand what the nutrition claims really mean.

Be careful with serving sizes!

  • When comparing the nutrition labels for foods, make sure you are comparing the same serving size. If not, you could reach false conclusions. For example, it might look like one food is lower in fat than the other, but only because the serving size is smaller.
  • Remember that the serving size on the label is not necessarily the same as the serving size you end up eating! Compare the serving size to what you would realistically expect to eat. Often the serving size on the label is much smaller. For example, a serving size for chips or crackers is often just a handful.
  • Some labels provide information on the food "as prepared." This is common for mixes or cereals, where other ingredients (such as milk) are added before you eat them. This means that the label includes not only the nutrition information for the food, but also for the other ingredients you add (based on average amounts).

Know your nutrition claims. Reaching for a "low fat" salad dressing and wondering how low fat it really is? Some of the nutrition claims made on food labels have very specific meanings, which can help you decide which foods are healthier:

  • "Low fat" means 3 g or less of fat per serving
  • "Reduced" means at least 25% (one-quarter) less than the regular product
  • "Reduced in fat" means at least 25% less fat than in the regular product
  • "Reduced in calories" means at least 25% fewer calories than in the regular product
  • "Sodium free" means less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
  • "Source of fibre" means at least 2 g of fibre per serving
  • "Lightly salted" means 50% less salt compared with a similar product
  • "Good source of calcium" means at least 165 mg of calcium per serving
  • "Light" means the food meets the requirements for either "reduced in fat" or "reduced in calories." Otherwise, the manufacturer must explain what makes the food "light," such as "light in colour."

By reading the Nutrition Facts label, and keeping a close eye on the serving size, nutrition claims and % DV, you're well on your way to making healthier food choices. And healthy eating can help you live well with MS!

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