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Reading and understanding food labels

This is an excerpt from Fitness and Wellness in Canada With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition by Sarah J. Woodruff Atkinson,Carol K. Armbruster,Ellen M. Evans & Catherine M. Sherwood-Laughlin.

Under the Food and Drugs Act, Health Canada requires labeling for all packaged foods. Food labels are not required on fresh meat, poultry, raw seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, food prepared or processed in store, foods that contain very few nutrients (e.g., vinegar, spices), and alcoholic beverages, although you can find nutrient information for these foods on Health Canada's website. One way to meet the recommendations highlighted in Canada's Food Guide is to select unprocessed foods. Dried beans and nuts; fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables; low-fat dairy; whole grains, such as brown rice and oatmeal; and lean, fresh meats are examples of nutrient-dense foods that likely do not have extensive food-label ingredient lists.

Food Labels Provide Nutrient Facts

By the end of 2021, all food manufacturers will need to comply with a new policy passed in 2016, which will require an updated food-label format (see figure 8.6; Government of Canada n.d.). The five mandatory requirements for all food labels are statement of identity (what the product is); net contents of package; nutrition information (nutrition facts panel); list of ingredients in order of largest to smallest percentage; and manufacturer, packer, or distributor information. Based on recommendations by experts, the following changes were made to the nutrition facts panel:

  • Calories and serving size fonts were enlarged and standardized.
  • Daily values were updated, including adding a new percent daily value for total sugars.
  • Vitamin and mineral amounts were added.
  • Potassium was added, and vitamins A and C were removed.

Lab 8.2 in the web study guide will give you an opportunity to practice your food-label reading skills.


The translation of the DRIs is further accomplished for the consumer by Health Canada policies that govern communicated dietary standards to the public, most recognizable in the form of daily values. This is most evident on food labels, where the daily values represent appropriate intakes for a 2,000-calorie diet, expressed as a percentage.

Figure 8.6 Everything you need to know about the new nutrition facts table.

Figure 8.6 Everything you need to know about the new nutrition facts table.

© All rights reserved. Food Labelling Changes. Health Canada, 2019. Adapted and reproduced with permission from the Minister of Health, 2019.

Food Package Nutrient and Health Claims

Knowing food-label language can also greatly assist you on your trip to the grocery store.


Food-labelling regulations by Health Canada require that products meet very distinct definitions before their manufacturers can make the following types of food-packaging claims.

  • Health claim. This indicates that a food or ingredient helps to reduce the risk of a disease or health-related condition (e.g., “Adequate calcium throughout life may reduce the risk of osteoporosis”).
  • Nutrient-content claim. This makes a statement about the level of a nutrient in a product (e.g., “Excellent source of calcium”). The majority of claims on food packages are nutrient-content claims.

Nutrient-content claims can be very confusing. Commonly used terms include free, low, reduced or less, light or lightly, high, good source, lean or extra lean, without added, source contains, and without. Many of these terms can be applied to products or foods targeting calories, fat, cholesterol, or sodium. For current information, go to the Government of Canada's website, and review the “Food labels” page (Government of Canada n.d.).

Now and Later: Sustaining You and the Earth

Now

Choosing to consume a diet closer to a vegetarian or Mediterranean diet can save you saturated fat calories and money if you prepare your food at home. For example, a large pot of bean soup can be relatively inexpensive to make in your slow cooker compared to a similar amount of beef stew.

Later

Small choices add up over time for your waistline, arteries, and wallet. These small choices also add up for our environment. For example, Canadians could reduce their diet's environmental footprint just by eating less meat and dairy. Beef and dairy cattle and the food products that end up on your dinner table are very environmentally expensive in terms of land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and, ultimately, ecosystem disruption.

Take Home

On your way to being a healthier you, remember to think socially when acting personally. Food choices affect your health, but they also have major long-term effects on our planet. This does not mean that everyone should be a vegetarian; however, by making small changes, you can be healthier and help our planet too. For example, try meatless Mondays, or eat only plant-based foods for one day per week. This could not only increase your fruit and vegetable intake but also help you discover some new favorite dishes as well.