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Posted: January 5, 2024

How To Read Food Labels

Animated picture of three individuals engaged in reading and food lable.

Managing diabetes highlights

  • The food label lets you know if the food choice is right for you.
  • Ingredients are listed from most to least, so make sure the first ones are what you actually want.
  • Look at the serving size to see if it’s the amount you would normally eat.
  • The % Daily Value shows how much of a certain nutrient is in a serving size. This tells you if there is a little or a lot of a nutrient in a serving size. 5% or less is a little and 15% or more is a lot.
  • While the label may say a food is fat-free or no sugar added, sometimes that only applies to one nutrient. Check the ingredient list and other nutrients on the Nutrition Facts Table (NFT) to see if the food is the right choice for you

Do you ever feel overwhelmed when trying to make healthy choices at the grocery store? With so many products on the shelves and more being added all the time, it is easy to be confused. The good news is that reading food labels can help you make the best food choices for you and your family as you navigate the aisles. The nutrition information on the labels of cans, packaged goods and frozen items is your guide to making healthy food choices. To develop your label-reading skills and understand what is included, take a closer look.

Start with the ingredient list

When reading a label, begin with the ingredient list. This list is required by law on all packaged foods. Ingredients are listed from most to least, so be sure that the first few ingredients are ones you want to be eating!

The nutrition facts table

Next, take a look at the Nutrition Facts table, which lists calories and 13 core nutrients. You will find that the table looks the same on different packages. This is an excellent source of information when you want to know more about the product. Start with the serving size, which will state an amount like six crackers or one tbsp or 250 mL. All nutrients are based on this amount. Be careful – the serving size may be more or less than the amount of food you would normally eat.

Also on the Nutrition Facts table is the % Daily Value (% DV). This tool is a benchmark for evaluating nutrient content quickly and easily. It is very helpful when comparing products and for making healthy choices. Nutrients are placed on a scale of zero to 100 percent. The higher the percentage, the more of that nutrient is present, so 5% DV or less means a little, while 15% DV or more means a lot. If the nutrient is one you want to eat more of, such as fibre, look for 15% DV or more. If it is a nutrient you would like to cut back on, such as sodium, look for 5% or less.

Package claims on food labels

Last but not least, consider the nutrient content claims on products. You might see statements like "no sugar added," "fat free," or "light." Buyer beware! Remember, the claim only focuses on one nutrient. By reading the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts table, you can get the whole picture and decide whether the product is cart-worthy.

If you have more questions on label reading, just ask. Dietitians are label-reading experts who can help navigate the grocery aisles and choose the best for you . Many dietitians are offering their services virtually. You can also get advice in planning grocery orders in advance. While reading labels does take a little longer, the benefits to your health are well worth the time.

Health Canada is improving food labels. A front-of-package nutrition symbol is required on foods that are high in one or more of these nutrients:

  • sodium
  • sugars
  • saturated fat

The food industry has been given until January 1, 2026 to make this change.

However, you may start seeing the front-of-package nutrition symbol earlier.

For more information visit

WRITTEN BY: Laurie Barker Jackman, RD, a registered dietitian in Halifax, Nova Scotia.