Ask a Dietitian

Ask a Dietitian

"Diana, just a quick heads up to let you know we are still using your cookbook and the guys will often be heard saying what would Diana say about this or that....really good feed back... I made your potato salad and the oriental coleslaw on Sat. for a family luncheon and had rave reviews so thanks again."

Maeghan Henke
BC Hydro

Food Labels and Health Claims

February 1st, 2012

A Consumer Guide to Reading Food Labels and Claims on Product Packaging.

Nutrition is a key factor influencing many consumers’ food choices.  While we often use product labels as one of our main sources of nutritional information, many consumers find this information inconsistent between products and/or confusing.  Health Canada has improved nutrition labeling regulations to help consumers:

  • Compare products more easily
  • Assess the nutritional value of more foods
  • Better manage diets for special needs
  • Increase/decrease a nutrient of interest

Nutrition Labels: Helping You Make Informed Choices

Nutrition Facts Table:

Serving Size: Information in the nutrition facts table is based on a specific amount of food.  Compare this amount to the amount you eat.  (show arrow pointing to Per 1 cup)

Nutrients Listed: Calories, fat (saturated and trans), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate (fibre and sugar), protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and Iron are all required nutrients.  Manufactures may include additional nutrients on the label.

Fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and protein will be listed by weight (grams and miligrams)

All nutrients will be listed by %DV (with the exception of Cholesterol)

% Daily Value (%DV): this tells you if the food contains a lot or a little of this particular nutrient.  A DV of 5% or less is a little and 15% or more is a lot.  The %DV is the amount of this particular nutrient available in one serving of the food relative to a Daily Value (based on a 2000 kcal diet).

Example:  If you have 28% sodium this is a lot, it is 28% of all the sodium recommended for one day.

Ingredient List: This is a list of all the ingredients, listed by weight, in order of most to least. If the food contains one of the top allergens, it may also be listed at the end of the ingredient list. (Contains: wheat, dairy, egg, nuts etc.).

Nutrition Claims

These are based on pre-determine rules set by Health Canada.  It highlights a nutrition feature of a food.  There are Nutrient claims and Health claims.

Nutrient Claims: these claims help you choose foods that have a nutrient you may want more of:

  • Source, such as source of fibre
  • High or good source, such as high in vitamin A or good source of iron
  • Very high or excellent source, such as excellent source of calcium

Or help you choose a food that contains a nutrient you may want less of:

  • Free, such as sodium free or trans fat free
  • Low, such as low fat
  • Reduced, such as reduced in Calories

Each claim has a specific guideline it needs to meet to be allowed on the label. Nutrient and health claims are not required on a label so you still need to refer to the Nutrition Facts Table to make healthy choices.

Health Claims: these are claims that highlight the relationship between diet and disease.  Use these claims to help you make food choices that will help reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.  For Example:

A diet low in sodium may help reduce the risk of high Blood Pressure

A diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer.

A diet high in calcium and vitamin D can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis

A diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease

A diet high in phytosterols may help lower cholesterol

Additional Information you may find on a food label in Canada, what it means, if the term is regulated and how it applies to you.

Enriched/Fortified:

A food that has been enriched is one that has had nutrients added back or restored to the food that were once naturally found in the product but lost during processing.  Example: enriched wheat flour

A food that has been fortified is one that has had certain nutrients added to a food that are not naturally present in a food. Example: Fortifed soy beverage.

There are regulations around which foods can be enriched and fortified and to what extent and with which nutrients.

Gluten Free:  a food cannot be labelled as “gluten-free” if it contains wheat, including spelt and kamut, or oats, barley, rye or triticale or any part thereof. (Maximum limit of 20 ppm due to cross contamination.).  People with celiac disease and those intolerant to gluten must avoid gluten in their diet.

Peanut Free: to use this claim the food may not have any exposure to peanuts and must be manufactured in a peanut free environment.  Do not eat foods that say “may contain peanuts” or “may contain traces of nuts” if you are allergic to peanuts.

Lactose Free: Foods that contain dairy may contain lactose.  People who are lactose intolerant may be able to digest small amounts of lactose without symptoms.

Whole Grain: A food that contains the statement “100% whole grain” on the label is made with 100% whole grain.  However, a food that says “made with whole grains” may contain only a small amount of one grain that is whole grain and the rest may be refined.  Check the ingredient list for items such as brown rice, whole oats, whole wheat flour, whole grain rye etc.

Natural: A natural food or ingredient of a food does not contain and never has contained an added vitamin, mineral, artificial flavour or food additive.  A natural foods has not had any part or fraction of it removed and has not been significantly changed (with the exception of water).

Organic: For a food label to use the word organic in Canada it must be certified by an accredited certification body approved by the CFIA.

Probiotics: Foods listing they contain probiotics must list the name of the strains included in the food and the quantity.  Certain claims regarding strains and cultures and their effect on health can be made, only if they meet the guidelines outlined by Health Canada.

Sustainable: A method of agriculture that attempts to ensure the profitability of farms while preserving the environment.

Local: Food that is grown and produced close to home.  There is no specific definition for how close it needs to be to be considered local.  This would vary for each person, from your back yard, to your province.