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Food labels explained

While it’s important to incorporate whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, and lean meats into your diet, there are also many packaged foods that are good for you and convenient. So getting into the habit of checking the labels of packaged meals and snacks will help you get the nutrients your body needs while improving your diet and making healthy choices. Food labels contain so much information, but it’s often difficult to know what you should be looking for and what it all means.

In Canada, food labels are regulated by Health Canada through the Food and Drugs Act and are required on most packaged foods. The ingredients are listed in descending order based on the amount that is in the product. The presence of any common allergens will also be listed.

What should I look for on the label?

First of all, it’s helpful to take note of is serving size. A food label will list information based on one serving, but many packages contain more than one serving. This means you may have to do a little math to figure out what you’re getting from your meal.

Most products also use colour coding on the front, which tells you at a glance if the food has high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The more green(s) on the label, the healthier the choice.

Here are other components of a food label that you should be aware of:


The terms “kilojoules” (kJ) or “kilocalories” (kcal) tell you the number of calories in one serving. If there are two servings per container and you eat the entire contents of the container, then you need to multiply the calories by two to determine how many calories you consumed.

Reference Intake 

This is helpful in understanding how what you’re eating fits into your overall daily intake of a particular nutrient. Reference intakes are useful guidelines on the recommended amount of energy and nutrients you need for a healthy balanced diet each day. The % RI tells you how much of your healthy daily maximum is in the portion of the product based on a reference standard for fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, carbohydrate, fibre, potassium and sodium.

Reference intakes explained

  • Total Fat: The total fat in one serving (in grams). For a heart-healthier option, choose foods that are higher in unsaturated fat instead of those with more saturated or trans fat.
  • Saturated Fat: The number of grams of saturated fat in one serving. Saturated fat should be limited by making healthy swaps like choosing skim or 1% milk instead of whole milk.
  • Trans Fat: Typically found in snack foods and some kinds of margarine, these should be avoided because they can raise your bad cholesterol level (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol level (HDL). If you see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in an ingredient list, the product will contain trans fat.
  • Cholesterol: The amount of cholesterol in one serving (in milligrams). Only animal products like high-fat meat, milk, cheese, eggs, poultry and fish contain cholesterol.
  • Sodium: The amount of sodium in one serving (in milligrams). Many processed foods have high levels of sodium, so be sure to read labels carefully and choose lower-sodium products.
  • Total Carbohydrate: The amount of carbohydrate in one serving (in grams). This value includes dietary fibre as well as added and naturally occurring sugars. Healthy sources of carbohydrates include whole grain bread, pasta, rice and cereal, and fruits and vegetables. With grain products like bread or pasta, look for the word “whole” at the beginning of the ingredient list instead of “enriched”. Some other whole grains are oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice and quinoa.
  • Dietary Fibre: The amount of dietary fibre in one serving (in grams). Adults should aim for 20 to 35 grams daily. Dietary fibre is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
  • Sugars: The amount of sugar in one serving (in grams.) This may be fructose, the sugar in fruit, and lactose, the sugar in milk, as well as sugars added during processing.
  • Protein: The amount of protein in one serving (in grams). Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, nuts, nut butter, low-fat dairy or soy products to meet your protein needs.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: The per cent daily value and the actual amount of each nutrient in one serving. While iron, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C are listed, other vitamins and minerals may be included in food but are not required to be listed.


Reading and understanding food labels can help you make healthier choices. Be aware that sometimes when fat is removed from a product, sugar may be added for flavour, and reduced sugar foods may have added fat for flavour. When comparing labels on different products, make sure you’re comparing the same serving size.

To help you understand food labels better, visit Understanding food labels if you’re in Canada, Food labels by NHS if you’re in the UK, Understanding Food Nutrition Labels by the American Heart Association if you’re in the US.

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