The Eco Well's Guide to Nutrition Labels

At a quick glance, nutrition labels are one of the best ways to understand information about the food we eat. Across studies, labeling seems to have been a big win since it was initially enforced in 2007 in Canada. While it's clear that labeling has been a huge step in the right direction, there's still a lot of room to grow. For example, less than half of Americans report using these labels while grocery shopping and an astonishing number of people don't know how to read them in the first place. What makes matters worse, labels are often extremely misleading and aren't always even accurate. This post will review what you should know about food labeling and marketing, upcoming changes by the Canadian Government and how to read labels. 

3 things to keep in mind while reading your nutrition labels


1. Labels often use unrealistic serving sizes.

FDA serving size recommendations come from the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed Index (RACC), with is based off of nationwide food consumption surveys done in the late 70s. Unfortunately, these values are extremely out dated, based on eating habits from a time when people ate a lot less than we currently do on average. For example, who actually eats only a half cup of ice cream nowadays? As a result, when we check out those labels and see 120 calories per serving for that ice cream, most of us will think to our self "hmmm, not so bad." Then we scoop out a few scoops and intake probably close to double the serving size. What makes things more confusing is that, under current guidelines, manufacturers can list a number as a product serving size if it weighs between 67-200% of the RACC weight. That leaves huge room for varying serving sizes for a single food item. For example, the RACC of a chocolate bar is 40g. In a study by Mohr and colleges, while serving sizes for Endangered Species brand milk chocolate was 40g, a serving of Milky Way and Three Musketeer bars where both 23g (57.5% of RACC). This is a tactic known as "health framing" because the lower serving bars seem healthier, considering all of the nutrient information on the packages hinge on the listed serving size (e.g. sugar, fat, calories). Across studies, health framing leads to a higher rate of purchase and consumption compared to similar products, especially among individuals who are the most health conscious. How can you get around this problem? Compare serving sizes to other similar products and to what you think you'll actually eat.

Note: How can the government improve this? The obvious thing that comes to mind is a complete overhaul of the RACC values. Here are a few other ideas.. Base the nutrition information on the entire container, especially when the food or beverage is commonly consumed in one sitting. For example, in a study by Antonuk and Block, individuals who where health conscious and viewed a entire package label for M&M's consumed significantly less than individuals who had labels with current single servings. In another study by Lando and Lo, participants rated products less healthy when they where labeled with one serving per container. When it comes to things like the mid-sized pop bottles and pint's of ice cream, this format may be a bit more helpful to consumers. 


2. The listed amount of calories isn't always right.

Unfortunately it seems that the FDA just wants to see a number. As a result, calorie content claimed is often incorrect. In both Canada and the USA, the FDA gives a 20% leeway for accuracy on our labels (Check the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and see for yourself). For example, manufacturers with a 120 calorie snack can claim it's 100 calories... which isn't a big deal... but the same goes for the 600 calorie items, which can be labelled as only 500. Obviously this is a bigger deal for calorie conscious consumers. As a result, just in one day, a person can easily eat more than 500 extra unanticipated calories due to these inaccuracies. 


3. The healthy buzzwords on the front of the package is just marketing.

Marketing the word “healthy” is a big theme in the grocery store, especially as we become more conscious of the nutritional value of our foods. The following is a list of a few commonly marketed words and what you should know when your deciding which foods to buy.

All natural: Doesn't mean much, the FDA doesn't define it. As a result there's a lot of room for interpretation by the manufacturers as long as the products don't have added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients. For example, "All-Natural" products may have preservatives, may be injected with sodium (e.g. raw chicken) or may have ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.

No sugar added: Although many products claim to have no added sugar, they still may have natural sugars. This isn't always a bad thing but when you have items like juice, which are stripped of their fiber, 23-30g of natural sugar is still 23-30g of sugar (about a full day's allotment of sugar... according to the World Health Organization that is).

Sugar free: Doesn't mean fewer calories and certainly doesn't mean healthy. These items often use artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols instead of sugar, which are under fire currently for their effects on our Gut Microflora. 

No Trans fat: Products who use this label must have equal or less than 0.5g/serving. The problem is, many product with 0.5g/serving have lower serving sizes than what's actually eaten. Keep in mind, Trans fat is bad for you; the best intake is none.  Eat 1 tbsp of refined peanut butter, for example, not so bad... add a few more and your trans fat intake can really add up.  Check for words on the ingredient lists like hydrogenated oils and shortening.. trans fat will be present in these.

Fat Free: These products are often loaded with extra sugar or pretty sketchy artificial ingredients to make them taste better with out the fat. 

Gluten-free: There's a big misconception that gluten free products are healthier. In reality, these products often have less fiber, more sugar and less nutritional value than people are led to believe. Unless you have celiac or gluten intolerance, there's really no need to eliminate the gluten protein from your diet. 

Cholesterol free:  Cholesterol only comes from animal products. What drives me up the wall is when I see Canola Oil or other plant-based products that say "cholesterol free!" NO DUH! Unfortunately consumers don't always know that and are more likely to purchase the products marketed with this label. Bear in mind, products with animal ingredients can say they're cholesterol free if they have under 2mg/serving... think back to serving sizes and it's obvious why that can be a problem. 

Organic: Organic does not equate to healthy!! These products can still be loaded with organic sugars, fats and salts.I'm not saying that organic foods can't be healthy, but you still have to check the nutrition tables and ingredients.

Omega-3: These fatty acids can come from either marine (E.g. Eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA)) or land (alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)) sources. Unlike the marine sources, land sources have to go through a bunch of chemical conversions in your body to turn into a usable omega 3. This conversion can be lower than 2%. While the fats from avocados, flax and chia have lots of health benefits, omega 3 isn't one of them. Here's a big peeve of mine in the food and supplement industry. Manufacturers sprinkle in some flax into their products (especially among vegan products) and then claim that they're a good source of omega 3: Bullshit!


Upcoming Changes to Canadian Food Labels

The Canadian government is in the process of a nutrition label overhaul across packaged foods in grocery stores across the country, with the promise of labels that are easier to understand and read. Following their final guidelines, manufacturers will have up to 5 years to make the changes. Note, the public has until August 27th 2016 to weigh in on the latest changes of this proposal before the guidelines are published.

Latest changes:

Grouping sugars in the ingredient list: Since ingredients are listed from most to least present, grouping all the sugars together instead of listing the individually will give us a better idea of how much sugar is in the product. Note: the government will no longer enforce added sugar on the facts table which was proposed earlier as they think that this grouping is sufficient to inform consumers. This may have been helpful to help consumers differentiate between natural and added sugars (e.g. calories with no nutritional benefit).

Mandated Daily Value % for Sugar: We're the first country to have a %DV for sugar on our nutrition tables. With that being said, I'm a wee bit disappointed with Health Canada on this one. The value will be significantly higher than the recommendations put out by the World Health Organization and the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

Standardized serving sizes: Similar products will have the same serving sizes (e.g. all yogurts will show information for 3/4 cup servings).

source: healthycanadians.gc

Note: Although nutrition labels are meant for the entire population, many people don't know how to read them. As a result, they're more likely to be used by individuals who are educated and affluent and likely already maintain healthy eating habits. In contrast, individuals who don't use food labels tend to be underprivileged, overweight and just trying to get by. At this point, our labels are used (and understood) least by individuals who could benefit the most from them. Coming back to the changes that are coming to Canadian labels, I would have preferred to see a transition to labels that are easier for consumers to understand. For example, in the UK packaged foods are marked with red, amber or green traffic light colors based on whether have lots, some or little fat, sugar and sodium. In a study in a hospital cafeteria, this system promoted more healthier purchases, especially among people with lower levels of education. Here's another strategy that I thought was kind of cool: presenting sugary drink calorie content as an exercise equivalent (e.g. 50 minutes to burn a 250 calorie beverage). In a study by Bleich and his colleges, this strategy significantly lowered the purchases of sugar sweetened drinks among adolescents. To make a significant impact on the understanding Canadians have about what a healthy diet actually means, changes like these seem way more worthwhile then the changes proposed by the Canadian government. At this point, our labels seem to be a bit more industry friendly than friendly to Canadian consumers. All in all, the proposed changes are a decent first step, but they definitely have a long way to grow.




1. Check out that serving size on the Nutrition Fact table and compare that to how much you actually eat. If you think you'll eat double or triple their suggested serving, think back to the half cup ice cream serving sizes, do the math and see if you want to be eating that many calories, sugar and fat. 


2. If you haven't already, check out how many calories are in the serving your about to eat. 


3. Look at the % Daily Values (%DV) on the Nutrition Fact Table. %DV puts nutrients on a scale from 0-100%: if there's only a little it'll be 5% or less, where as if it's a lot, it'll be 15% or more. Depending on the nutrient, that's either a good or potentially bad thing. Aim to get more fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, iron and calcium and less saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, and no trans fat. %DV's are a good resource to compare products more easily (so long as the serving sizes are the same), raise or lower your intake of a certain nutrient and better figure out how healthy an item is. 


4. Check out the carbohydrate information on the Nutrition Fact Table. The amount on the table is the total carbohydrates, including starch, fiber and simple sugars. If your watching your sugar intake (probably a good idea for everyone), subtract the amount of fiber from the total carbohydrates (fiber doesn't raise your blood sugar) to get a better picture of the sugar content. As a general rule, aim to get more fiber and less simple sugars (particularly in packaged foods). Note, you can also compare %DV of fiber between similar products. 


5. Finally, take a look at the ingredient list. Bear in mind, ingredients are listed from most to least present. If sugar, fat or sodium is listed in the first few ingredients, probably not the healthiest choice. Watch for different sugar types, trans or hydrogenated fats, sketchy food dyes or preservatives and ingredients like Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

Tips: read your labels and ingredients diligently, prioritize ingredients over calories, don't believe the front of the package ads and slogans, and compare products, picking ones with more good and less bad. With that being said, if your aiming for a healthier diet, one of the best strategies is opting for fresh plant foods such as fruits and vegetables while limiting the packaged products with these nutrition labels in the first place. 

And that's a rap! Thanks for stopping by, hopefully this post was informative. If you have any questions, queries, conundrums or concerns, leave them below in the comments, on my facebook page or shoot me an email!


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