How to read food labels

How much is too much sugar? What makes something a source of fibre? We shine a light on the fine print of nutritional facts.

nutritional food label

Illustration, Frank Ramspott/Getty Images.

Size up your serving
The suggested serving on a package isn’t one-size-fits-all. “You may need to multiply those numbers by two or three, depending on how much you normally eat,” says Andrea D’Ambrosio, a registered dietitian in Waterloo, Ont. And beware of apples-to-oranges comparisons: One box of cereal may give you nutrition info based on a one-cup serving, while another might base it on two-thirds of a cup.

Crunch the numbers
Check out the far right side of nutrition labels to find the percentage daily value (%DV) of things like sodium, fat and fibre. “Five percent is considered a small amount of your daily nutritional requirement, while 15 percent or more is a lot,” says D’Ambrosio. A good rule of thumb: Buy foods with no more than 5 percent of your daily sodium intake and look for those that contain at least 15 percent of the good stuff, like fibre, calcium, iron and vitamins.

Become a sugar sleuth
Labels list ingredients in descending order by quantity, so watch for those that feature sugar up top. “Some granola bars are like glorified chocolate bars with a little bit of oatmeal,” says Andrea Miller, a registered dietitian in Whitby, Ont. She recommends foods that contain less than 8 g of sugar and at least 4 g of fibre per serving. But the sweet stuff is sneaky. Barley malt, dextrose, cane sugar and fructose are just a few of the aliases used to mask sugar’s true identity.

Don’t buy (all) the hype
Do labels ever lie? Although nutrition claims must meet certain standards — a cereal that boasts it’s “a source of fibre,” for example, must contain at least 2 g per serving — be skeptical of health promises on the front of the box. “I see products labelled ‘cholesterol-free’ that never contained any cholesterol to begin with,” says D’Ambrosio. It’s a marketing tactic designed to make you think the product is healthier than it is. “For instance, potato chips fried in vegetable oil will be cholesterol free, but they’re not fat free,” she says.

Pace yourself
It’s best not to scrutinize your entire grocery list at once — you’ll be stuck at the store for days. Instead, read just a few labels on similar products during each shopping trip. “Compare soup labels one week, do cereal another week, and crackers after that,” says Miller. Before long, you’ll have successfully decoded every item on your list.