Understanding Health Canada’s New Food Labeling Regulations
On June 30, Health Canada announced new nutrition labeling regulations that will require prepackaged foods high in saturated fat, sugars and/or sodium to display a symbol on the front of the package highlighting this information.
Research in other countries has shown that these easy-to-understand front-of-package labels can guide consumers towards healthier food choices.
The “high potency” symbol on the front of the package will complement the Nutrition Facts table on the back of the package, which has been mandatory since 2007. Food manufacturers have until January 1, 2026 to comply with the new regulations.
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In the meantime, the following tips can help you understand the Nutrition Facts table and apply this information to your personal diet.
(Note: In December 2016, Health Canada announced improvements to the Nutrition Facts table and ingredient list, a few of which I mention below. Although these updates will not be fully effective until December 2023, many food companies have already applied them to product labels.)
Check the serving size
In order to know how much protein, fibre, sugar or sodium, for example, you are consuming, look at the serving size and compare this amount to the amount you actually eat.
The updated Nutrition Facts table serving size better reflects the amount of food typically consumed in one sitting. They are also more consistent across products, making it easier to compare similar foods in terms of calories and nutrients.
Understanding sugar numbers
The amount of sugars (grams) shown in the Nutrition Facts table includes free sugars and natural sugars (eg lactose in milk and fructose in fruit). As such, the sugar information does not tell you how much has been added by the food industry.
You can assume, however, that for a product that does not contain dairy or dried fruit, the amount of sugars listed will be free sugars. For perspective, four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.
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Typically, a single 100g serving of vanilla or fruit yogurt contains 11-12g of total sugars. About 8g are free sugars and the rest is natural lactose. For plain yogurt, all sugar listed is natural sugar.
Free sugars are added sugars as well as sugars naturally present in fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. Once removed from whole fruits, these sugars are “free” to add to foods for sweetening purposes.
Using Daily Value (DV) Percentages
The DV percentages, on the right side of the Nutrition Facts table, are useful for getting an idea of how much of a nutrient is in a serving of the product.
Five percent or less of the DV is considered a little and 15% or more is considered a lot.
A low DV percentage is good for nutrients you want to limit (eg sodium, sugars). For nutrients you might want to consume more of (eg fiber, potassium, calcium), look for higher DV percentages.
The daily values are based on the recommended daily allowances, which correspond to age- and gender-specific daily nutritional needs. For saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, consider these DVs as upper intake limits.
The DV for total sugars was set at 100 g, an amount consistent with a healthy diet where most total sugars come from fruits, vegetables and unsweetened dairy products.
Read the list of ingredients
Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. The first or heaviest ingredient is what the product contains the most.
The ingredient list has been updated so that all sugar-free ingredients are grouped together under the common name “Sugars”. The placement of sugars in the ingredient list will depend on the total weight of the sugar ingredients combined.
The list of ingredients gives an overall idea of the nutritional quality of a product. Ideally, choose products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients.
Don’t be fooled by ingredients that seem healthier than they are, like wheat flour (refined white flour), fruit juice concentrate (a free sugar), and brown rice syrup (a sugar free).
The The Nutrition Facts box and ingredient list provide helpful information to help you make healthier food choices, but don’t get too bogged down with certain numbers or percentages.
Also consider the overall nutritional quality of food items, especially those that are part of your regular diet.
Just because a product has fewer calories or carbohydrates, for example, doesn’t mean it’s a good source of beneficial nutrients or doesn’t contain undesirable ingredients.
Leslie Beck, a dietitian in private practice in Toronto, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD
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