The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing.
The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right?
The way the current Nutrition Facts table is written out it makes it hard to the consumer to properly compare multiple food items. In Canada, the government has mandated changes on food labels. (YUPPIE!) Food companies have from 2017 to 2022 to make the changes. So you might have already seen some on packaged foods!
There are various changes being implemented including serving sizes being more consistent between similar foods which 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. See end of post for more information on the upcoming changed.
Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not, let’s make sure you get the most out of it.
Here’s my four-step crash course on reading and understanding the Nutrition Facts table.
Step 1: Serving Size
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.
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 30 g. This means that all the numbers listed are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using 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 vs how many you might eat in a sitting).
UPCOMING CHANGES: The serving size will be consistent between brands so that it’s easier to compare similar foods. It will also be more realistic so that it reflects the amount that Canadians typically eat in one sitting.
Step 2: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.
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.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.
You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it’s missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient.
UPCOMING CHANGES: The % daily values will be updated based on the newest science. They will also be adding a new % daily value for total sugars. From what I can tell, it looks like they’re going to be suggesting 100g a day. This is a very large amount of sugar and I would not recommend that to anyone. You should be closer to 25g a day which is something to keep in mind when looking at new labels.
Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)
Calories are pretty straight forward. For the walnut label, 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. (Yes, 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. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It’s easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks it’s very easy to go high about your recommended amount. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, 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). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are 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.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.
UPCOMING CHANGES: They will be making the information on serving size and calories easier to find and read by increasing the font size of serving size and calories and adding a bold line under the calories. Potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom with the vitamins and minerals.
Step 4: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. 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 do.
UPCOMING CHANGES: They’re updating the list of nutrients to:
- Add potassium because it’s important for maintaining healthy blood pressure and most Canadians are not getting enough of this nutrient.
- They’re also removing vitamin A and vitamin C because most Canadians get enough of these nutrients in their diets.
- They’re adding the amounts in milligrams (mg) for potassium, calcium and iron
- There will also be a footnote at the bottom of the table about % daily value which will help consumers understand how much sugar and other nutrients (like sodium) are in their food and will explain that:
5% or less is a little
15% or more is a lot
What will the new label changes look like?
In the image below you can see the changes that will be implemented in the next 5 years. For more information on the changes being made by Health Canada on labels, check out their website here: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-labelling-changes.html
Changes to Ingredients
There will also be changes for the ingredients label as well.
The changes to the list of ingredients include:
- Grouping sugars-based ingredients in brackets after the name ‘sugars’. This will help consumers identify all of the sources of sugars added to a food
- Listing food colours by their individual common names
- Making the text in black font on white or neutral background
- Creating minimum type height requirements for ingredients
- Using bullets or commas to separate ingredients
- Using both upper and lower case letters for the ingredients in the list. The same format rules will apply to any ‘contains’ statement indicating the presence or potential presence of: priority food allergens, gluten sources, and added sulphites.
These changes will make it easier to find, read and understand the list of ingredients. Below would be the new ingredients label template:
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. Knowing what you’re looking for and understanding what you’re reading are 2 different things that I hope I’ve helped clarify today.
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