Tips to Reading Food Labels


When shopping at the grocery store, what is it that helps you decide what to buy? Are you drawn to the fonts, colours, and food packaging? Do you read the bold statements on the front of the package about the health benefits such as “with added vitamins”?


Do you look at the Nutrition Facts table? Are you overwhelmed by all the information there? And what about the ingredient listing? Do you look at that?


From packaging to health claims to the ingredient list to the nutrition facts table, it’s easy to be confused. In today’s post, I’ll give you 5 tips you need to know when making your food buying choices.


The Ingredient List Is The Most Important Piece of Information


This is the most important and for the most part the ONLY part of the package you really need to read. The best thing you can do is ignore the pretty packaging and health claims and get out your magnifying glass and look at what’s actually inside.


It will take you a little longer at first, but you will get better at it, and this is a key step in making better choices.


It goes without saying that the best foods to choose don’t actually have an ingredient list, but for when you are buying some items that do, make sure that you can identify each item as though you could buy them and make the product yourself at home.


Colourings, additives, preservatives, and flavourings are not doing your health any good. Check out this detailed article by the Environmental Working Group about some of the worst offenders.


After you’ve approved the ingredient list, it’s a good idea to check out some of the information on the Nutrition Facts table. Here are some tips:


Noting the Serving Size is Key


The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it’s tricky.


All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.


In Canada, in the next few years (between 2017-2022), serving sizes will be more consistent with similar foods. This will make it easier to compare foods. The new labels will also have more realistic serving sizes to reflect the amount that people eat in one sitting, and not be artificially small.


Let’s use an example – plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.



As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.


FUN EXPERIMENT: Use a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).


How many servings are you eating?


% Daily Value is a Guideline


The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. It is a guideline, not a rule, but ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day from all the foods you are eating.


NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.


Anything less than 5% is considered to be a little and anything greater than 20% is considered to be a lot.


NOTE: some %DV are missing because there isn’t an agreed upon “official” amount for that nutrient. The good news is that a %DV for sugar is expected to be added in the near future. Keep your eyes out for that.


How to Read the Middle of the table



Calories are pretty straightforward. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.


Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g – 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).


Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. It’s easy to overdo sodium when you’re eating packaged snacks. Keep an eye on this amount if you are salt sensitive (i.e. if your doctor mentioned it, or if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).


Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown and need to do some math to calculate it). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g is all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.


For weight loss, I recommend limiting sugars. If you would like help getting started with this, I recommend that you download my FREE meal plan with recipes and guide. Get it here.


Proteins, like calories, are pretty straightforward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.


How to Read the Bottom of the table


The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.


Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others.


I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. If you’d like some help to guide you through a week of healthy meals, download my free meal plan with recipes and shopping list below to get you going.

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