4 things you should know about Canada’s nutrition label

4 things you should know about Canada's nutrition label

1. The Percent Daily Value (% DV) is not individualized

I’m starting off with this point because I think it is the most misunderstood aspect of Canada’s nutrition label. The Percent Daily Value is based on a single reference amount for all people over 2 years of age. For example, the reference level for iron is 14 mg, and this applies to everyone over 2 years of age, regardless of their life stage or gender.

However, people of different age groups and genders have different requirements of different nutrients. So how can the percent daily value for iron apply to both a 9 year old boy and a 30 year old woman? It can’t!  A 9 year old boy needs only 8 mg, whereas a 30 year old woman needs 18 mg. So if a food says that it supplies 25% DV for iron, in reality it actually meets 44% of the young boy’s needs and 19% of the woman’s needs.

percent daily value

2. The Percent Daily Value (% DV) may be outdated

There is always new research coming out on food and nutrition. As a result, nutrition guidelines and tools are always going to be slightly behind the times. An example of this is the % Daily Value for vitamin D, which is based on an amount of 200 IU. This value comes from the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) set in 1997; however the DRIs for vitamin D were updated in 2010.

To explain this further: the nutrition label for 1 cup of skim milk states that it gives you 45% DV for vitamin D, but this is only 45% of 200 IU. Based on the updated DRIs, 1 cup of milk actually only meets 15% of vitamin D needs for most people!

3. “Sugars” refers to both added sugars and sugars naturally found in the food

We all know that added sugar is something that we should avoid in foods. But some foods like dairy, fruits, and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars that do not need to be avoided. Unfortunately “sugar” on the nutrition label (found beneath “Carbohydrates”) refers to both added sugars and naturally occurring sugars, which makes it difficult to understand which foods contain added sugars.

Greek yogurt nutrition facts table

For example, a 3/4 cup serving of plain 2% yogurt may have between 5-8 grams or more of sugar on its label. But all of this comes from lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products. As another example, a 1/2 cup serving of unsweetened applesauce will have around 8 grams of sugar on its label. The applesauce contains no added sugar, but these 8 grams come from the glucose and fructose in the apples.

4. 0 mg of trans fat doesn’t necessarily mean the food has no trans fats

If a food contains less than 0.2 mg of trans fats per serving and also meets the criteria for calling itself “low in saturated fats”, it can say that it contains 0 mg of trans fats on the label. I have a problem with this for two reasons:

  1. Trans fats of any amount are unhealthy, so consumers deserve to know if their product contains any amount
  2. If someone eats more than the stated serving size of a product containing trans fats (even though the label says 0 mg), they could end up eating a significant amount.

The best way to find out if a product contains trans fat is to check the ingredients list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils and fats. If you see these listed as an ingredient, put it back on the shelf! For example, Pillsbury biscuits have 0 g of trans fat per biscuit on their label; however there is hydrogenated fat on its ingredient list, so it may have up to 0.19 g of trans fat per biscuit. If I ate three biscuits in a sitting, I could be eating almost 0.6 g of trans fat!

Hydrogenated oil on ingredients list

The bottom line

Nutrition labels can be confusing and may not always be telling the whole story. The good news is that Canada’s nutrition label is undergoing some proposed changes that will make it easier to read and more transparent. I’ll be talking about some of these proposed changes in an upcoming blog post!


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20 Responses to 4 things you should know about Canada’s nutrition label

  1. I’m sure you can tell whether something has added sugars if you read the ingredient list?

    • Chelsea

      You definitely can. But that just adds more work for the customer and not everyone cares enough to read the ingredients!

  2. Great run down Chelsea :) The trans fat thing bothers me a lot too. I have basically stopped using nutrition labels except for the ingredients list. I think that’s the most important part!

  3. It’s very similar in the US! It’s kind of a bummer that nutrition labels aren’t more clear. And like Linda said ^^ You could check the ingredients list for added sugars BUT a lot of people don’t know that things like sucrose, etc. are actually sugars. It’s a shame it’s so complicated!

    • Chelsea

      I should have mentioned reading the ingredient list in my post – that is definitely the best way to understand what’s in the food! But as you said, there are so many words for sugar and people don’t always know what counts as sugar. It would be much easier if the food label would show the amount of added sugar in grams in the nutrition facts table! Luckily that is one of the proposed changes…

  4. You guys are still one up on us here- When they have ‘low carb’ products, they don’t count the fiber or the fibrous sweeteners/additives but in essence, there is actually more carbs than there is. The % is such an annoying one too!

  5. Great summary! It’s amazing how misleading some labels can be. It’s been mentioned above, but a quick look at the ingredient list is such a great way to get a full idea of what is actually in the product. I’m eager to see Canada’s updated Nutrition Facts Labels.

    • Chelsea

      Yeah I should have mentioned reading the ingredient list – obviously that’s the best way to know what’s in your food! A lot of people are too lazy to do that though lol. Which is why the nutrition facts table should give a more accurate representation of what’s in the food.

  6. Adriana Glofcheskie

    Thanks for this post, Chelsea! Sometimes our nutrition labelling system makes my head spin, and I’m a master’s student in nutrition…so I can only imagine how the average consumer must feel trying to navigate it all!

    • Chelsea

      Exactly! It makes me confused too sometimes. I’ve had to do some serious digging in the Food and Drug Regulations to really get the full picture – and the average consumer definitely isn’t going to be doing that haha.

  7. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even bother with nutrition labels anymore. I still read ingredients labels to check for peanuts and other things that I don’t really want to be eating, but I can’t be bothered to get caught up in numbers anymore. I really do wish that they’d make things clearer, though. And I’m hoping that the upcoming changes will be an improvement!

    • Chelsea

      Yeah a lot of people don’t bother to read ingredient lists – or at least they don’t start doing it until they’re older and become interested in their health. Whereas we’ve been doing it since we learned how to read lol!

  8. Fantastic post – the trans fat thing mind boggling. It’s a shame this loop whole exists.

    • Chelsea

      I watched a webinar on the proposed changes to the nutrition label, and it didn’t say anything about changes to the trans fat regulations. So I bet that loop hole will remain, unfortunately…

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  11. I actually only read the ingredient lists since the nutrition labels don’t account for all the great points you mentioned in this post.

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