A food label can include only the ingredients that are in the food product. The Nutrition Facts Labels on the back of packaged foods and beverages tell us what the foods or drinks are composed of. It is important to understand the information on these food labels and what it is telling us, in order to make informed food choices.
Below are some components required by the Nutrition and Labelling act for all packaged foods:
To understand how much energy the food you are eating contains and its calories, you need to know the serving size. This is one of the first things mentioned on top of the food labels. The calories listed are per serving. Eating more than the recommended serving size would mean that you are eating more than the servings shown, thereby, consuming more calories.
Food is fuel for the body. The calorie listing tells us how much energy we get from one serving of the food or drink. Eating multiple servings would mean that you need to multiply the calories on the label by the number of servings. This will give us the total of how many calories we have eaten. The amount of each nutrient is written below this in ‘g’ for grams or ‘mg’ milligrams.
The Nutrition Facts panel must list the amounts of these nutrients: total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fibre, sugars, added sugars, protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and potassium.
Fats: (A macronutrient that provides nine calories per gram.)
The total fats per serving is listed here. Trans fats if any needs to be listed here. Manufacturers may choose to add several other optional nutrients or nutritional information like the calories from saturated fat, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated fat. Saturated fats are usually found in animal and dairy products, polyunsaturated fats can be healthful in moderation, monounsaturated fats which are healthy fats, and trans fats. The different kinds of fats have different impacts on the body. Trans fats are extremely processed, unnatural and unhealthy. It is best to avoid foods that contain this kind of fat.
This nutrient is listed because many people have to be careful about how much cholesterol they need, to pay extra attention to their heart health. It is listed in milligrams.
Salt is listed as sodium on the nutritional label. It may not be a concern for a vast majority of people as compared to trans fats and sugar. However, packaged foods tend to be very high in sodium. It is important to ensure that you are not exceeding your daily limit of sodium intake. Some people with Blood Pressure issues can be very sensitive to salt.
Total Carbohydrates/Carbs: (A macronutrient that provides four calories per gram.)
They are the body's first source of energy. They are broken down and listed under dietary fibre which is good carbs and sugar which we should limit in our diet. We should focus on eating foods low in added sugars. Diabetics need to take care to restrict foods with added sugars.
Proteins: (A macronutrient that provides four calories per gram.)
It is needed for muscle growth, recovery and to keep organs healthy.
Vitamins & Minerals: (Micronutrients)
Nutrition labels may contain a list of vitamins and minerals present in the food. This does not necessarily mean the food is healthy. It may be listed in milligrams or in % daily value.
% Daily Value (DV):
This is shown in % (percentage) next to each of the nutrients above. It shows how much of the daily requirement of that particular nutrient you can get from each serving of the food. It is important to know that this percentage may not necessarily be the same for all.
The nutrition label in terms of calories is not the whole picture. It is important to look at the Ingredient List which is usually placed at the bottom of the nutrition label. This list tells us exactly what all has gone into the making of the particular packaged product. Ingredient quality matters as much as calories. They are listed in proportion. So the items listed first, are what the food is mostly made up of. Sometimes we see sub-ingredients put in brackets. It tells us what is in the ingredient directly before it.
It is very important to read this list to ensure we are making healthy choices. It also helps us to ensure we are not eating anything that we may be allergic to.
‘Use by’ and ‘Best before’ dates
All foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a date on them that tells you when the manufacturer advises the food will either be unsafe to eat or not as good to eat. Use by is for perishable foods like meat, fish and dairy. It is illegal for shops to sell food past its ‘Use by’ date.
Best before tells you the date when the food will still be safe to eat but might not be of the best quality anymore.
Baked on or packed on is the date the food was manufactured or packed. This tells you how fresh it is.
Non-Vegetarian packaged foods must have a symbol that is a brown/red colour-filled circle inside a square with a brown/red outline. If a food contains only egg as a non-vegetarian ingredient, then the manufacturer may provide a declaration that the product contains only egg and add the non-vegetarian symbol.
Vegetarian packaged foods should have a symbol that consists of a green colour-filled circle inside a square with a green outline.
Comparing the nutritional information labels on different food products helps you work out the healthiest choice. The healthiest choices have zero trans fats, lower saturated fat, lower sodium, lower sugar and higher fibre for their recommended serving size.