Decoding Nutrition Labels

Since 2003 when Health Canada first made food labeling mandatory, Canadians have been relying on product labels to help them make informed food choices. But the question remains: do labels tell us the entire truth about what we’re eating? I’ve asked myself this a million times, so gather around my curious foodies because it’s time to read between the lines.

1. Natural

I don’t know about you but this term makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. When I see the word “natural” I immediately think of Mother Nature and her bountiful beauty of green trees and radiant sunshine. Apparently Health Canada agrees because the word “natural” can only be used to describe foods that are found in nature and have not been altered as a result of the refining process. Foods can also be given this comforting term if they contain ingredients that are not artificial or synthetic.

Pretty straight forward huh? Not so much. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the term “natural” along with its clever doppelgangers – “nature” and “nature’s way” – is often misused on labels of products sold in Canada. In fact, some particularly crafty manufactures even use these words to convey the idea that their product is nutritionally superior to others. While this isn’t always the case, it does remind us that we have to ask the right questions and do the right digging to determine if these foods are nutritionally robust as they sound. For those unconvinced, please consider exhibit A: so long as the refining process does not alter its physical, biological, or chemical make-up, sugar (sucrose) can be described as natural because it exists in nature. I rest my case.

2. Excellent Source 

I sure like the phrase “excellent source,” but what makes something excellent? In Canada, a product can proclaim excellence if it provides a very large amount of a nutrient. “Very large” may seem quite arbitrary but the term is well defined. Phew. For vitamins it’s at least 35% of the recommended daily intake, except for vitamin C where excellence is achieved if the food provides at least 50% of the nutrient. For fibre, a product must contain 6 grams or more per serving or contain at least 6 grams of fibre from an identified source.

3. Pure  

Before 1952, the Food and Drugs Act prohibited the use of the term “pure” if the food was a compound, mixture, imitation, or substitute. Seems rather intuitive right? Well you may be shocked to know that the term is no longer regulated. As if sensing a problem with this, the CFIA warns that this term, along with 100% pure and 100%, should be “used with care” as it could potentially mislead consumers.  

4. “Free”, “No”, “Zero”

For conscious eaters, these words are music to our ears. When I see phrases like “zero calories,” “no sugar,” or the euphoric “fat-free,” all of my alarm bells are silenced. I was slightly stunned to learn that these words aren’t as absolute one would think. According to Health Canada, manufacturers can use these terms if their food provides so little of the nutrient that it likely won’t have any effect on your body. This means 5 calories or less per reference amount, or 0.5 mg or less of fat, and 2 mg or less of cholesterol. Call me neurotic but shouldn’t the terms “free,” “no,” or “zero,” mean just that?

5. Light

This term can be used if the food is modified so that it contains at least 25% less of a nutrient than a similar product. For energy, this means at least 25% less calories and for fat, at least 25% less per serving than its counterpart. But be careful. Manufacturers of junk food (particularly potato chips) often use this term to woo health conscious consumers. My advice is to go light on the light because too much is never a good thing.

6. “Healthy for you” or “Healthy choice”

These gimmicky catch-phrases have found their way on many front-of-package labels in recent years. You should know that these terms are not regulated by Health Canada, and at present, manufactures can freely use them to add some pizzazz to their products. While some of these products could actually be healthier alternatives, Health Canada warns consumers against using these claims alone to make informed food choices.    

7. Product of Canada

As a proud Canadian, any chance I get to support my beloved country, I do. So imagine my surprise when I learned that this phrase is a bit misleading to say the least. The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, as part of the larger Food and Drug Act states that a product can bear this claim if all or “virtually all” ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the product are Canadian. This means that as long as all the significant ingredients, such as the honey and flour used to make a cookie are grown or processed in Canada, it can be labelled as such despite the fact that the spices, vitamins, minerals, and flavourings may have been produced elsewhere. Go figure!                 

Notwithstanding the instances of confusion, food labeling has certainly come a long way. However, there’s still plenty of work to do. I recommend that you continue familiarizing yourself with product labels and if you’re particularly keen, the Canadian legislations that govern them. You may be in for the surprise of your life!  

About Renee Hughes:

Renee Hughes holds a Master of Health Science in Nutrition Communication from Ryerson University in Toronto. She also holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Food and Nutrition from Ryerson University and a Bachelor of Arts in Crime and Deviance from the University of Toronto. As a passionate nutrition and food writer, Renee has written articles for dietitians, non-profit agencies, and has developed community based nutrition workshops in Toronto. To contact Renee, please send an email to: 

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