Your guide to understanding Nutrition Facts labels

Anke Neustadt

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a grocery store aisle, packaged product in hand, staring at the Nutrition Facts label, willing it to divulge whether the item within has any health benefits whatsoever, or even tastes good?

Vanita Pais, a clinical dietitian with The Hospital for Sick Children, can help with tips on how to decipher nutrition labels. Buckle up — there’s math involved.

What can we learn from the Nutrition Facts label?

It helps you make informed food choices at the grocery store. There is a lot of information on the label, so it can be a bit overwhelming. I like to break it into four parts: the serving size, number of calories, Daily Value percentage and the ingredient list.

Let’s start with the serving size, why is it important to understand this?

It’s important because serving sizes are not standardized on nutrition labels. Let’s say you’re comparing yogurt: One brand might have a serving size of 170 g, another might have 225 g. This makes it tricky to compare one to the other. Standardization of serving sizes is coming to Canadian nutrition labels, but we don’t have it yet.

That said, the serving size is useful for understanding the amounts of what you’re eating. If you’re eating more than the serving size, you’re obviously getting more of what’s in that food.

And the reverse is true: For example, if the serving size for bread is for two slices, and your child typically eats only one, you have to do the math and cut everything in half — including the amount of nutrients.

Looking at the serving size also helps keep a brand’s health claims in perspective. A manufacturer that claims a product is “low in fat” might have an unrealistically low serving size.

For example, a brand of potato chips might claim to be low fat yet has a serving size of seven chips. Very few of us eat only seven potato chips in a sitting.

What should families pay attention to when it comes to the ingredient list?

The list gives you information on 13 core nutrients: fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, carbohydrate, sodium, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. If these nutrients are included in the food item, they must be listed.

Ingredients are listed in order of weight, beginning with the ingredient that weighs the most. So, if the first listed ingredient is sugar, you can assume this product contains a significant amount of sugar.

Here’s the challenge: The same ingredient can have many names. Sugar might be listed as high fructose, corn syrup, honey, lactose, maltose or molasses. And saturated fats could be listed as hydrogenated fat, coconut oil, lard, palm oil or shortening. Sodium, or salt, also includes monosodium glutamate, sodium benzoate or sodium alginate.

So, the consumer is left having to play detective. I often tell parents, if you’ve never heard of many of the listed ingredients, maybe think twice before buying that product.

What does the “Daily Value” percentage tell you?

The Daily Value percentage (DV), found on the right-hand side of the Nutrition Facts label, tells you if the serving size has a little or a lot of a nutrient.

Without context, it can be a little confusing. So, here is context: Any nutrient with a five per cent DV or lower means you’re getting very little of that nutrient for the specified serving size. Anything 15 per cent or higher means you’re getting a lot of that nutrient.

The DV is useful in calculating how much of the good nutrients, such as fibre and protein, you’re getting versus the amount of less desirable nutrients, such as fats and sodium. Unfortunately, the DV is not listed for all nutrients, including sugar.

Let’s say you pick up a box of chicken nuggets, and you see a serving of four nuggets has 30 per cent DV of fat, then you know this is a high-fat choice because it’s got more than 15 per cent. The nutrients you’d like to see with a DV of more than 15 per cent are fibre, protein, iron, calcium, or vitamin D.

Healthy Kids poses health questions to experts at SickKids. Always consult your health-care provider with specific concerns. Torstar is in a fundraising and educational partnership with SickKids Foundation to help raise $1.5 billion for new facilities.

Too much of these could be harmful to your child’s health — here’s why

  • Sugar (look for 10 g or less per serving size)

Too much sugar leads to an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, prediabetes, Type II diabetes and obesity. Sugar intake releases a feel-good hormone (dopamine) in your brain, so you risk eating more of it to maintain that feeling. Because Nutrition Facts labels do not list the DV percentage for sugar, Vanita Pais from SickKids suggests you look for less than 10 grams of sugar in a serving size.

  • Salt (look for 300 mg or less per serving size)

When any of us — kids or adults — have too much salt, it affects calcium absorption, meaning we don’t absorb calcium as well. A lot of salt strains the kidneys and may lead to elevated blood pressure. We all need some salt, but it appears in so many processed foods it’s a good idea to pay attention to how much your child is getting. When choosing packaged foods, Pais recommends between 200 and 300 mg of sodium per serving.

  • Fats (look for DV of 5 per cent or less hydrogenated fats)

Try to avoid hydrogenated or saturated fats, trans-fats, palm oil or lard, they are linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes. Look for items that contain a DV of 5 per cent or less of these fats. According to Pais, better options are non-hydrogenated fats. For example, non-hydrogenated margarine is healthier than hydrogenated margarine. Better fats include avocado, nut butters, olive or canola oil.


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