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What is in a Nutrition Facts Label?

One of my favourite tasks as a dietitian was teaching people how to read nutrition labels. Nutrition labelling is all the information found on the labels of prepackaged foods and is comprised of the required nutrition facts table, ingredient list and the optional health claims. These pieces of information became mandatory for all pregpackaged foods in 2005. It can be quite confusing to decipher all that information but once you know how to read and interpret the table, it can be very helpful in making healthier choices and give you a better idea of what you are eating. Although it is mandatory for every prepackaged food to have a nutrition facts table, not all foods need to have one.

The following foods are not required to have a nutrition facts table:

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Raw meat and poultry (except when it is ground)
  • Raw fish and seafood
  • Foods prepared or processed at the store (bakery items, salads, etc)
  • Foods that contain very few nutrients such as coffee, tea, herbs and spices
  • Alcoholic beverages

The nutrition facts table looks the same on most foods, which makes it easy to find and easy to read.  All of the information in the nutrition facts table is based on a given amount of food. This amount is always found at the top of the table. That’s the first component of the table you should look at. You need to know what amount of food the information you’re looking at refers to. Unless the box is for a single serving, such as a microwave dinner, rarely is the information referring to the entire box. For example, the information on a box of chocolate chip cookies will not refer to the whole box but what the manufacturer considers to be a serving, maybe 2 cookies. It’s important to realize that the serving sizes provided on nutrition facts tables, even within a specific food category (such as cookies), may not be equivalent. This means that one box of cookies may have a serving size of 2 cookies and another may have a serving size of 3 cookies. This makes it difficult to compare products to one another directly. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to compare the nutrient analysis of similar products. 

The 13 core nutrients found on the table are:

  • Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Trans-Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fibre
  • Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron

Other nutrients like potassium or omega 3 fatty acids are optional unless the label has a claim regarding those nutrients, in which case it has to be part of the table. Fibre and sugars are actually types of carbohydrates and so they are included in the total amount of carbohydrate listed. Similarly, saturated and trans-fats are both included in the fat totals.

What does the percentage on the right side of table refer to? It’s the daily percentage needed for an average individual that eats 2000 calories per day. If you’re a smaller or larger person, you will likely need less or more respectively than 2000 calories, in which case the percentages are not adequate for you. Not every nutrient has a recommended daily intake and in those cases, there is no % to the right of the amount stated. In the case of sodium, the % refers to the maximum daily intake, 2400 mg, not the amount that is recommended to consume.

Now that you know a little more about how to read the nutrition facts table, you can choose products a little easier and also, compare products to make better food choices for your residents, yourself and your family.

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