Your Complete Guide to Reading Food Labels

For the average consumer, food labels can be tricky to decipher. Here’s help understanding what they mean

Your Complete Guide to Reading Food Labels

Source: Best Health magazine, May 2015

Think of a nutrition label as a snapshot of a food product’s nutrition profile. It always lists (when applicable) calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. You can use this information to find out the nutritional value of foods and compare similar products. Or, use it to monitor special dietary restrictions, like keeping tabs on sugar content for diabetics.

Serving size

The first place to look is the serving size information. Located directly under the "Nutrition Facts" title at the top of the label, it’s a great way to track the amount of fat, calories and nutrients you’re consuming. Compare the specific amount of food displayed on the label to the amount you are actually consuming; these amounts can vary greatly, to multiply accordingly.

% Daily Value

This helps you evaluate whether there is a little or a lot of a nutrient in the food you are about to consume. For instance, a 10% daily value (DV) of fibre means one serving of that food provides 10 percent of the fibre a person should consume in one day. The quick rule is 5% DV or less is a little, 15% DV or more is a lot. (So, you would want to look for less than five percent for something like sodium but over 15 percent for a beneficial nutrient like fibre.) Daily values for carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat are based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day- diet. Daily values for the remaining nutrients on the label apply to most people, regardless of their caloric needs.


In Canada, calories and 13 core nutrients are always listed in the same descending order. The number of calories listed lets you know just how much energy you will derive from one serving of this food. Keeping the 2,000- calorie-per-day guideline in mind, factor in how much of this particular food you should reasonably consume.

Fat, including Saturated and Trans

When it comes to fat in foods, not all fats are created equal. For instance, omega-3 fats (polyunsaturated), like those found in fish, and monounsaturated fats, like those found in avocados, are considered healthy fats with heart-healthy benefits. Strive to consume less saturated and trans fats ‘ the top two fat types that can raise LDL, or ‘bad’ blood cholesterol levels. Current guidelines recommend consuming no more than 10 percent of these bad fats as an upper daily limit, or 20 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. Keep total fat to less than 65 grams.


Dietary cholesterol only has an effect on some people, but the best way to control blood cholesterol is to choose foods that are lower in saturated and trans fats. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of dietary cholesterol is no more than 300 milligrams per day, while the claim ‘cholesterol-free’ indicates that food has less than two milligrams of cholesterol in the amount specified and is also low in saturated and trans fats.


Health Canada suggests keeping your daily sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams, or just over 1/2 teaspoon, with 2,300 milligrams at maximum. For a food product to be considered ‘sodium-free,’ it must contain less than five milligrams of sodium per serving. Look for foods that have less than 360 milligrams of sodium per serving.


This number represents the sum of sugar, starch and fibre in a serving size. While sugar and fibre must be listed under carbohydrates, starch is optional for the food manufacturers to list. Sugar and starch provide energy to fuel both brain and muscles, while fibre is considered a non-digestible carbohydrate that is important to your health. Keep daily levels around 300 grams, and read on for more on sugars and fibre.


To meet government regulations, a ‘source of fibre’ nutrition claim means that a specific amount of food contains at least two grams of fibre. A ‘high source’ of fibre is at least four grams, and a ‘very high’ source of fibre contains six grams minimum. Aim for 25 grams of fibre.


The overall grams of sugars listed on a label include both refined sugars, meaning those added in processing, and naturally occurring sugars, such as fructose found in fruit or lactose in milk. When comparing a breakfast cereal with dried fruit to one without, there is a good chance that the one with fruit will be higher in sugars, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When possible, choose food products with naturally occurring sugars over those with refined sugars.

Currently there is no daily value for sugars, but Health Canada is proposing to establish one at 100 grams.


A source of amino acids that helps build and maintain your healthy body, protein also keeps you feeling full. On average, adults require 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight, meaning a 68-kilogram (150-pound) adult needs about 55 grams of protein a day.