The Truth About Nutrition Labels

By Andrea Falcone

Nutrition and health claims are all over food packages to help sell a product or highlight the benefits of one product over another. All labelling information is available to consumers through the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada websites, but when you’re cruising the grocery aisles – in between working a full-time job and trying to get dinner on the table by 6:30 p.m. – you don’t think to consult these pages before placing a product in your grocery cart. Although there are specific rules that companies must follow to use claims, there are still some ways manufacturers can work around them. Here’s what you need to know about food labels.

The Ingredient List

This is your best friend. It has all of the information you need, listing all of the ingredients in order from the largest quantity to the least. Provided you are up-to-date on all of the different names for fats and sugars, you can make an informed decision based on this content.

Allergen Information

This is often found close to the ingredient list. The 10 priority food allergens set by Health Canada are peanuts, egg, soy, sesame seeds, milk, seafood, tree nuts, sulphites, wheat, and mustard. If you or anyone you purchase food for has a known allergy, you’ll want to check this out. Note that food manufacturers change their ingredients sometimes, so check this information even if you have purchased the products before.

Composition Claims

“100% Whole Wheat!” “Made With 100% Fruit Juice!” Beware these claims on a product’s label – they’re there to tempt you. A package can claim it is made with 100 per cent whole grains or fruit juice, even if it is the last ingredient and preceded with four different kinds of sugars. Always refer back to the ingredient list to be sure you know what you’re purchasing.

Nutrition and Health Claims

A nutrient content claim highlights some part about the product’s nutrition (such as low in calories or high in fibre) and, even though Health Canada has a detailed guideline for nutrition claims, you still can’t believe everything you read. For example, a product that indicates it is calorie-free could still contain calories, provided it is less than five calories per serving size. If by the end of your “treat” you’ve had 10 servings, you could very well have had 50 calories. This is still a small amount of calories, but it can add up.

A health claim focuses on a benefit that could arise from eating a product (for example, “A diet high in vegetables and fruit may help protect against some cancers”), and while health claims have strict guidelines behind them and must be backed by research, a frozen dinner that contains vegetables can claim that a diet high in vegetables is healthy (which it is), but in regards to that specific meal all of the extra sodium and fat could pretty much negate the health benefits of the vegetables.

Method of Production Claims

The “Certified Organic” claim can only be placed on a food product from Canada if the Canadian Food Inspection Agency determines that 95 per cent or more of its contents are organic. However, it is important to note that organic does not indicate that a product has better nutrition.

Natural” can be claimed on a product that is expected to not have any added vitamins, minerals, artificial flavours, or food additives, along with minimal processing of the original food. Some food additives can be included under this label claim if they come from a plant or animal source. You just need to always take your focus back to that ingredient list to find the facts and ensure there aren’t any ingredients (however “natural” they may be) that you don’t feel comfortable consuming.

The Bottom Line

To keep life simple, use the ingredient list whenever you can to help you align a product’s nutrition information with what your personal nutrition goals may be.

Andrea Falcone is a private practice dietitian working within Peel, Halton, and the Greater Toronto Area.

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