Learning to read labels

Tara Bradbury
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Anne Marie Armstrong in the Halifax Loblaws where she works. — Submitted photo

If you’re the type that reads nutrition labels on packaged food, you’ll know how tricky it can be — the number of calories and grams of fat might look OK, until you check out the recommended portion size and realize you’ve been eating two or three times that amount. And milligrams of sodium — how much is too much?

Canadians named an understanding of nutrition labels as a barrier to eating healthier, according to the Loblaw Companies Ltd. Livelifewell survey, compiled from a national online poll conducted by VisionCritical for the supermarket giant.

The results of the poll were released last week, just in time for Nutrition Month.

The survey was mostly positive, with 67 per cent of Canadians saying they are making healthier choices than they were a year ago, more of them women than men.

In Atlantic Canada, that number was higher, with 70 per cent of people choosing to live healthier.

Thirty-nine per cent of respondents said they are eating more fresh food. Thirty-two per cent said they’re trying to reduce their fat intake, 30 per cent are reducing sodium and 13 per cent are reducing how much sugar they eat.

Fifty per cent of Canadians said they look at nutrition labels but don’t really understand how to read them.

It’s best to start with the percentage of daily intake, found on the right-hand side of the label, says Anne Marie Armstrong.

Armstong, a native of Grand Falls-Windsor, works with Atlantic Canadian Loblaws Stores (Dominion, Save Easy and No Frills) and is based in Halifax.

“The per cent daily value tells you if there’s a little or lot of a nutrient supplied by the serving size,” Armstrong explained. “Fifteen per cent is the benchmark for high and five per cent is the benchmark for low. For desirable nutrients like fibre, you want to look for 15 per cent or higher, and for less desirable nutrients, like fat or sodium, you want to look for, ideally, five per cent or less.”

Pay careful attention to the recommended portion size on the label, Armstrong said, since it’s often much smaller than what the average person will eat, and is decided by the manufacturer only — not Health Canada or a dietician — and often used as a marketing tool.

The smaller the portion size, the more appealing the product looks when a consumer glances at the calories, fat grams and sodium content.

“The serving size for bread is now one slice, and it used to be two, and I’ve seen half a frozen dinner counted as a serving. Look at the portion size and ask yourself, ‘Am I going to eat that much or double that much?’ People usually eat double what’s there,” Armstong said.


Once the percentage of daily value is taken into consideration, anyone who is a little more motivated to decipher a nutrition label can turn to the fat and calorie content.

Women should aim to eat between 40 and 60 grams of fat a day for optimum health, while men should aim for between 60 and 90, Armstrong said.

When it comes to calories, it’s a little more subjective, since calorie intake depends on a person’s weight and activity level.

On average, women need between 1,500 and 2,000 and men between 1,800 and 2,200, she explained.

“Try to aim for your everyday foods or the foods you eat frequently to be less than 10 grams of fat per serving, and if you do that, I find people tend to fall within their (optimum fat gram allowance) naturally,” Armstong said.

Other things to look for on the label include calcium, particularly for those who have osteoporosis or young children, and iron, especially for women and athletes.

For the average person, Armstrong said, fibre is an important component to consider.


The biggest barrier survey respondents said they had when it comes to eating healthier is cost, with 41 per cent of them naming it as an obstacle.

With a two-litre container of soft drink cheaper than a two-litre container of milk, and quick, convenient packaged foods cheaper than buying individual ingredients, this came as no surprise to Armstrong, who said she is often asked by customers for ideas for low-cost healthy eating and low-cost recipes.

There are tips she always gives: watch supermarket flyers for sales on produce, and stay away from things that are out of season; remember that frozen vegetables and fruits are just as good as fresh; and go grocery shopping late in the evening or early morning, when supermarkets often reduce their bakery products or produce. Bread can be taken home and frozen, she said.

There are a number of low-cost alternatives to meat, including eggs, lentils, chick peas, beans, canned tuna or salmon, and good old-fashioned peanut butter, Armstrong said, although kids may not be permitted to bring fish or peanut butter to school.

Powdered milk is also cheaper than fresh, and can be mixed with fresh milk half-and-half.

The best way to reduce grocery spending is to plan, plan, plan, Armstrong said.

“If you’re going to the grocery store without having some idea of three or four meals a week, you’re just kind of wandering around, and you’re going to spend more money. I’ve been in that situation myself,” she explained. “When I plan my meals, I’ll normally plan three and we’ll use leftovers. We’ll either eat it the next day or the day after.”

Armstong reckons the Canadian trend for healthier eating isn’t just a fad, and will continue as nutrition becomes more of a topic in the news and on social media outlets.



Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Loblaw Companies Ltd., Atlantic Canadian Loblaws Stores, Health Canada

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Grand Falls-Windsor, Halifax

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Recent comments

  • mainlander
    March 10, 2012 - 15:13

    What about GMO's? Shouldn't people be aware if they are eating foods containing them? Of course, how would you know since it is not required to put it on the label. The Telegram should do a MAJOR feature on GMO's to help educate the public to know what they are eating. Partner with CBC & NTV to really get the word out. Pressure the government to mandate labeling them. Maybe this might shame food companies to stop using them.