Understanding Food Labels

September 28, 2020

A mother with a toddler on her hip in the kitchen cooking dinner in front of the stove holding a carton of cooking cream and checking labels

Enjoying a balanced and nutritious diet has gained a lot of attention in recent years due to the high rates of obesity and chronic illnesses caused by a poor diet. So how can we make better, informed choices about the food we consume, and for our families? In this blog we dive a little deeper into food labels: what they include, what to look for, and how to use them to make healthy choices. This is a longer post, but we decided it was important to dedicate a whole post about nutritional labels so that you know exactly what you are reading and what it means!

Defining What’s in Your Food 

Before we get started, we thought it might be helpful to review a few important terms: 

Calcium is a mineral necessary for proper bone structure and muscle contraction, playing a role in muscle movement and cardiovascular function. We need vitamin D to help absorb calcium in the body. Foods containing calcium include dairy, green leafy vegetables, legumes and grains, as well as nuts and seeds. [i]

Calories are a measure of the units of energy contained in food. Nutrients used to calculate calories are derived from carbohydrates, fat, and protein. [ii]

Carbohydrates contain compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and can be further subdivided into simple or complex. Simple, essentially means, that the digestive system can break down the molecule faster, where complex carbohydrates will take longer to break down. Complex carbohydrates are better for your health, as they will keep you feeling full for a longer period of time, and prevent feeling a sugar crash which happens when too many simple sugars (carbohydrates) are consumed. [iii]

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in your body’s cells. Your body does require a small amount; however, too much will put you at risk for coronary artery disease. It is measured by the lipoproteins in your blood, including high-density lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins, where HDL is known as the ’good’ cholesterol and LDL is known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol. [iv]


  • Trans Fats: contain both naturally occurring and artificial fats in the foods we eat. Naturally occurring trans fats may be found in milk and meat products in small amounts. The artificial trans fats are created when companies add hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid and thus produce partially hydrogenated oils. This is important to understand, as partially hydrogenated oils lead to an increase of low-density lipoproteins in the blood (LDL) which is linked to heart disease. [v][vi]
  • Saturated Fats are found in dairy and animal products and have bonds tightly linked together and tend to be solid at room temperature. They are also found in palm and coconut oils, as well as lard and shortening. There is some evidence that these saturated fats can also lead to high levels of LDL, and it is recommended to limit their consumption as much as possible [vii][viii]
  • Unsaturated Fats fall under two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Unsaturated fats are loosely linked together and tend to liquify at room temperature. The difference between the two types depends on the number of double bonds separating the chain of fatty acids. They tend to increase high-density lipoproteins in the blood (HDL) and are good for your health. You can find monounsaturated fats in foods such as olive oil, avocado, and most nuts and seeds, while polyunsaturated fats contain the Omegas, and are found in foods such as fish, tuna, salmon, flax, and some seeds. [ix]

Iron is an essential mineral that helps transport oxygen in the blood by making oxygen-carrying proteins. [x]

% Daily Value (%DV) is the percent daily value will tell you the % of a nutrient in the referenced serving size that relates to the total daily recommended amount [xi]

Potassium is an essential electrolyte in the body and helps with muscle movement, nerve signals, and regulation of fluids.[xii] Potassium can be found in fruits, vegetables, and fish. 

Protein is a source of energy and is necessary for the structure, function, and regulation of cells, tissues, and organs. It is found in dairy products, fish and seafood, legumes, meat, as well as nuts and seeds. [xiii]

Sodium is an essential electrolyte for the body for the regulation of fluids, and helps with nerve and muscle function; however, too much sodium can be detrimental to your health. [xiv] Canadians are consuming about double the amount of what we need, causing an increased risk for stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and negatively impacting the severity of asthma. [xv]

Changes to Canadian Food Labels

Recently, there have been recommended changes to food labels in Canada (shown below). Government Canada consulted with Canadians to gain their feedback on food labels to make them easier to understand. Here is a summary of what is changing (note: suppliers have been given a five-year window to make these changes that will become mandatory by 2022).

Nutrition Facts Table [xvi]

  • Serving size is more realistic reflecting the amount of food typically consumed in one sitting, while also making it easier to compare similar foods
  • Font size has increased
  • A bold line has been added under calories
  • % Daily Value has been added for sugars
  • Potassium has been added to assist in managing healthy blood pressure
  • mg amounts have been added for potassium, calcium, and iron
  • A footnote is added to clarify how the % daily value should be interpreted

Health Canada’s proposed changes to the format requirements for the display of nutrition and other information on food labelsImage: Government of Canada, (2020). Nutrition facts table changes.

Also, changes will be coming concerning how the ‘Ingredients List’ is displayed and this is summarized here and pictured below.

List of Ingredients:

  • Sugars are grouped in brackets after the name ‘sugars’ to help identify all the sugar sources in food
  • The appearance will change (font, use of bullets or comas, upper and lower-case letters) to make it easier to read
  • Listing food colours by their common names [xvii]

Image: Government of Canada, (2020). List of ingredients.

We thought it might be fun to explore a food label in more detail so we asked Google: “What is the most popular food item purchased at grocery stores in Canada?” The answer came back as “Kraft Dinner”. While looking at the Kraft Dinner food label, it was interesting to note the new guidelines for food labels were not used. This made us wonder whether other food manufacturing companies had started implementing the new guidelines. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find manufacturers that had implemented the new changes but time is ticking and we’ll soon have new guidelines in place to make the goal of healthy eating that much easier.

List of ingredients on top of a pot of macaroni and cheese dinnerImage: Kraft Dinner Ingredients List 

What can we take away from the ingredient label? For starters, what is enriched macaroni (durum wheat semolina, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid)? Durum wheat semolina is a type of wheat that is refined to a coarser product, thus losing many of its nutrients. [xviii] It is then enriched to help break down carbohydrates and proteins­—with niacin [xix], thiamin mononitrate [xx], riboflavin [xxi], and ferrous sulfate (a synthetic form of iron) [xxii], and folic acid (helps produce healthy red blood cells and protein metabolism) [xxiii]. Overall, it is not the best option for pasta, given the whole wheat option would be better, but at least it is fortified with some helpful agents.

Here’s a look at the cheese sauce:

  • Whey—a byproduct of cheese after it has been curdled and strained [xxiv]
  • Milkfat—the natural fat from milk [xxv]
  • Milk protein concentrate—a protein formed from filtered milk [xxvi]
  • Salt
  • Sodium triphosphate—is a preservative used in foods to help retain moisture [xxvii] 
  • Enzymes—aid in digestion and metabolism—traditionally derived from animal stomachs [xxviii]   
  • Calcium phosphate—a mineral salt contained in a chemically modified food starch [xxix]
  • Lactic acid—produced from fermented whey, corn, potatoes, or molasses [xxx]
  • Citric acid—naturally found in fruits and synthetically produced by using a sugar fermenting process [xxxi]
  • Sodium Phosphate—a combination of salt and phosphate which is a salt-forming chemical used to thicken food [xxxii]
  • Paprika
  • Turmeric
  • Annato added for colour—vegetable dye from a tropical tree [xxxiii]
  • Cheese culture—bacteria used in cheesemaking

Okay, now that there is a better understanding of what the ingredients mean (clear as mud), how do we interpret the nutritional chart?

Nutrition facts from the side of a Kraft Dinner box
Image: Kraft Dinner Nutritional Facts

For ¼ amount of the box, you will consume 310 calories, but you also need to know your total recommended daily calories to make an informed decision. *See our Tidbit for Your Tiny One on how to calculate your recommended daily calories. Total fat is 15% of the recommended DV (daily value). Earlier, when we looked at the upcoming changes coming to food labels, we learned that anything over 15% of the DV was considered high! Earlier we learned that saturated fats can lead to an increase of LDL in the blood which is linked to heart disease (here, they list the total fat at 15%—definitely on the higher end).

Kraft Dinner has a lot of sodium at 37% of the DV (all of those preservatives and salts listed in the ingredients section sure added up). Carbohydrates are at the high end at 15% DV and the majority come from sugars which means they are the ‘simple carbohydrates’. This type causes a ‘crash’ because our bodies break them down quickly leading to a sudden feeling of fatigue and hunger. There are some benefits with the protein and calcium, but the fibre is rather low at 4% and thus puts a small dent in the DV. After learning more about this food, it makes me wonder how anyone ever came up with this recipe?

Health Canada provides recommended Daily Values which we have summarized here and can easily be referenced to other food labels to provide additional clarity.

Daily Values for Macronutrients and Sodium

Nutrient 1—4 yrs  4+ yrs
Fat 44 g 75 g
Saturated + trans-fatty acids 10 g 20 g
Sugars 50 g 100 g
Cholesterol 300 mg 300 mg
Sodium 1,500 mg 2,300 mg


Daily Values for Vitamin and Mineral Nutrients

Nutrient 6 mos–1 yr 1 to 4 yrs  4+ yrs 
Potassium 700 mg 3,000 mg 4,700 mg
Calcium 260 mg 700 mg 1,300 mg
Iron 11 mg 7 mg 18 mg
Vitamin A 500 μg 300 μg 900 μg
Vitamin C 50 mg 15 mg 90 mg
Vitamin D 10 μg 15 μg 20 μg
Vitamin E 5 mg 6 mg 15 mg
Vitamin K 2.5 μg 30 μg 120 μg
Thiamin, Thiamine, Vitamin B1 0.3 mg 0.5 mg 1.2 mg
Riboflavin or  Vitamin B2 0.4 mg 0.5 mg 1.3 mg
Niacin 4 mg 6 mg 16 mg
Vitamin B6 0.3 mg 0.5 mg 1.7 mg
Folate 80 μg DFE 150 μg DFE 400 μg DFE
Vitamin B12 0.5 μg 0.9 μg 2.4 μg
Choline 150 mg 200 mg 550 mg
Biotin 6 μg 8 μg 30 μg
Panthothenic Acid  1.8 mg 2 mg 5 mg
Phosphorous 275 mg 460 mg 1,250 mg
Iodide 130 μg 90 μg 150 μg
Magnesium 75 mg 80 mg 420 mg
Zinc 3 mg 3 mg 11 mg
Selenium 20 μg 20 μg 55 μg
Copper 0.2 mg 0.3 mg 0.9 mg
Manganese 0.6 mg 1.2 mg 2.3 mg
Chromium 5.5 μg 11 μg 35 μg
Molybdenum 3 μg 17 μg 45 μg
Chloride 570 mg 1,500 mg 2,300 mg

mg = milligrams; μg = micrograms
DFE = Dietary Folate Equivalents
Source: Health Canada, (2016). Nutrition Labelling: Table of Daily Values. (pp. 1-4). Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, Ottawa, ON

Tidbit for Your Tiny One

Here is a list of estimated energy requirements (caloric intake) from infancy to adulthood according to the National Academy of Medicine:

Boy and Girl – Infants and Toddlers:
0-3 months = (89 x Wt [kg] – 100) + 175
4-6 months = (89 x Wt [kg] – 100) + 56
7-12 months = (89 x Wt [kg] – 100) + 22
13-36 months = (89 x Wt [kg] – 100) + 20

Boys 3-8 years old:
88.5 – 61.9 x Age [y] + PA x (26.7 x Wt [kg] + 903 x Ht [m]) +20

Girls 3-8 years old:
135.3 – (30.8 x age [y]) + PAx { (10.0 x weight [kg]) + (934 x height [m]) } + 20

Boys 9-18 years old:
88.5 – 61.9 x Age [y] + PA x (26.7 x Wt [kg] + 903 x Ht [m]) +25

Girls 9-18 years old:
135.3 – (30.8 x age [y]) + PA x { (10.0 x weight [kg]) + (934 x height [m]) } + 25

Adults 19 years and older–Men
662 – (9.53 x age [y]) + PA x { (15.91 x weight [kg]) + (539.6 x height [m]) }

Adults 19 years and older–Women
354 – (6.91 x age [y]) + PA x { (9.36 x weight [kg]) + (726 x height [m]) }

Where, PA is indicated as the (Physical Activity Coefficient) [34]

  • PA = 1.00 if PAL is estimated to be ≥ 1.0 < 1.4 (sedentary)
  • PA = 1.12 if PAL is estimated to be ≥ 1.4 < 1.6 (low active)
  • PA = 1.24 if PAL is estimated to be ≥ 1.6 < 1.9 (moderately active)
  • PA = 1.45 if PAL is estimated to be ≥ 1.9 < 2.5 (very active)


And in the spirit of promoting happy and healthy mealtimes, enjoy a free copy of our DIY Printable Lunchbox Notes to remind your little ones know they are loved! We hope we’ve contributed something beneficial to your day, and remember… don’t hog the blog...share with friends today!

Have a bloomin’ day!
Sarah & Karen


[i] Medical News Today, (2020). Benefits and sources of calcium. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248958

[ii] Government of Canada, (2019). Calories. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/calories.html

[iii] MedicineNet, (2020). Medical definition of carbohydrates. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=15381

[iv] Medline Plus, (2019). Cholesterol levels: What you need to know. https://medlineplus.gov/cholesterollevelswhatyouneedtoknow.html

[v] Government of Canada, (2019). Fats. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fats.html

[vi] Heart and Stroke Foundation, (2020). The facts on trans fats. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/get-healthy/healthy-eating/the-facts-on-trans-fats

[vii] Government of Canada, (2019). Fats. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fats.html

[viii] Healthline, (2020). What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat? https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/saturated-vs-unsaturated-fat#saturated-fat

[ix] Healthline, (2020). What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat? https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/saturated-vs-unsaturated-fat#saturated-fat

[x] MedlinePlus, (2020). Iron in diet. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002422.htm

[xi] Government of Canada, (2019). Protein. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/protein.html

[xii] Healthline, (2020). What does potassium do for your body? A detailed review. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-does-potassium-do

[xiii] Government of Canada, (2019). Understanding food labels. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/serving-size.html

[xiv] Merck, (2020). Overview of sodium’s role in the body. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/electrolyte-balance/overview-of-sodiums-role-in-the-body

[xv] Government of Canada, (2019). Sodium in Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/sodium.html

[xvi] Government of Canada. (2020). Food labelling Changes. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-labelling-changes.html

[xvii] Government of Canada. (2020). Food labelling Changes. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-labelling-changes.html

[xviii] Healthline, (2019). What’s the difference between durum and whole wheat? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/durum-wheat-vs-whole-wheat#durum-wheat

[xix] LiveScience. Niacin (vitamin B3): Benefits and side effects. https://www.livescience.com/51825-niacin-benefits.html

[xx] Drugbank, (2020). Thiamine mononitrate. https://go.drugbank.com/salts/DBSALT001495

[xxi] LiveScience, (2015). Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Sources, benefits, and dosage. https://www.livescience.com/51966-vitamin-b2-riboflavin.html

[xxii] Drugs.com, (2019). Ferrous Sulfatehttps://www.drugs.com/ferrous_sulfate.html

[xxiii] The Nutrition Source, (2020). Folate (Folic Acid – Vitamin B9). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/folic-acid/

[xxiv] Wikipedia, (2020). Whey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whey

[xxv] The Free Dictionary, (2020). Butterfat. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Milkfat

[xxvi] The Protein Works, (2013). What is milk protein? https://www.theproteinworks.com/thelockerroom/what-is-milk-protein/

[xxvii] Wikipedia, (2020). Sodium triphosphate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_triphosphate

[xxviii] Live Science, (2014). How do enzymes work? https://www.livescience.com/45145-how-do-enzymes-work.html

[xxix] Vegan Peace, (2018). Ingredients. http://www.veganpeace.com/ingredients/ingredients.htm

[xxx] Vegan Peace, (2018). Ingredients. http://www.veganpeace.com/ingredients/ingredients.htm

[xxxi] Vegan Peace, (2018). Ingredients. http://www.veganpeace.com/ingredients/ingredients.htm

[xxxii] Medline, (2018). Sodium Phosphate. https://www.healthline.com/health/sodium-phosphate#uses-in-food

[xxxiii] Vegan Peace, (2018). Ingredients. http://www.veganpeace.com/ingredients/ingredients.htm

[xxxiv] Global PxPh, (2020). Institute of Medicine–Estimated energy requirements. https://globalrph.com/medcalcs/estimated-energy-requirement-eer-equation/

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