The Label Low-Down: How to Get the Most Out of the Nutrition Facts Table

Going to the grocery store can sometimes be a daunting experience, especially when you have growing kids to feed. It’s hard enough to come up with meal ideas that excite your family and satisfy their taste buds. But how do you go about demystifying what’s inside those prepackaged foods?
Nutrition labels contain all of the essential information consumers need to know about the nutritive value of food products, and can serve as a navigation tool to make healthier choices. Yet a large number of Canadians admit they’re just plain confused by them.
Recently, Health Canada and the federal government launched an education campaign to help shoppers better understand how to distinguish a healthy product from fat-filled, sugar-filled and salt-laden substitutes. And while it may seem off-putting to scrutinize every box on the shelf, Claudine Larivière, a nutritionist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre says practice makes perfect.
The rule of 5% and 15%

The rule of 5% and 15%

The Nutrition Facts table on any given product gives you information on the amount of 13 core nutrients and calories in a serving of food. This information, along with the percentage daily value calculation (DV %) can help you compare foods and choose products that are more nutritious for you and your family.
Using the daily value percentage indicator, Larivière says it is fairly simple to determine which foods are wholesome, and which foods aren’t by using the 5% to 15% rule.
“Nutrients you will want more of are calcium, iron, fibre, vitamin A and vitamin C,” says Larivière. “That said, to make healthy choices you should choose products that have 15% or more of these nutrients,” she says. “Nutrients you want less of are fat, which includes saturated and trans fats, cholesterolas well as sodium,” she adds, noting that parents will want to look for products that contain less than 5% of the daily value of these nutrients to keep a well-balanced diet.
Understanding portion sizes

Understanding portion sizes

Larivière notes that it is important to keep in mind that the percentage daily value in the Nutrition Facts table is for a specific amount, or a serving of food, but the amount consumed can be smaller or larger. “A serving size on a label will not necessarily be equal to what you or your child will eat in one sitting, and shoppers shouldn’t feel limited to that portion,” she says. Stay on track by comparing the serving size information to the amount you or your kids will actually eat.
All nutrition labels in Canada are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, and do not take into account specifics of age or diet considerations. Larivière says it is important to keep in mind that while the daily values of certain foods may be accurate for healthy teens, young adults and adults, there are a few diet considerations to take into account for kids.
“Younger children who are still growing need more fat in their diet,” she says, “however you still want to stress the importance of high quality choices.”Larivière notes that parents will also want to make sure that fats come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils, nuts and avocado, as well as fish instead of trans and saturated fats.
Helpful tips to use at the grocery store:

Helpful tips to use at the grocery store:

To make shopping easier and to eliminate doubts about whether or not you are buying healthy foods for your family, Larivière says awareness is key:

  • When you enter a grocery store, make sure to start off near the fresh fruits and continue around the perimeter of the store to the meat section, then on to dairy and frozen vegetables. By shopping around the store, you will be sure to purchase products from all foods groups. The aisles tend to contain processed foods rich in fats, sodium, and simple sugars.
  • Compare the product you regularly buy to a similar product you don’t normally choose to determine the nutritional value of other foods. You may decide that a once reliable choice is not as healthy as you once thought it was!
  • Pay attention to serving sizes and compare these to the amount you or your children would normally eat. This will take the guessing out of how much you are eating.
  • Be weary of nutritional claims – Larivière says products that claim to be a “source of” or “good source of” are good indicators of products that contain nutrients you want more that 15% of, such as calcium, iron, fibre. However, she warns that products that contain claims of being “fat free” or “reduced in calories” don’t necessarily mean that they will be any healthier for you and your family. When in doubt, rely on the 5% to 15% rule.