Deciphering the Nutritional Label
Deciphering the Nutritional Label

Starting in 2003 Canadians will have the most comprehensive food labels in the world. Health Canada has launched a new labelling program that requires most foods to bear a standardized box of nutritional information.

The food industry has three years to comply with the new regulations, while small businesses with less than $1 million in annual sales have been given five years. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will enforce the regulations.

"Canada will be the only country that includes trans fats in its labels."

Before the new law, labelling was voluntary. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest ( CSPI ) says only half of foods in Canada had any nutritional information. The labels lacked standardization of serving sizes and units of measurement, further confusing consumers.

Bill Jeffery of CSPI points out food manufacturers were allowed to claim their product was full of good fibre but would leave out the fat content. The new rules would provide all that information and more.

A 1999 National Institute of Nutrition study found more than half of consumers thought if a nutrient wasn't listed on the label, it wasn't present in the food.

The government says the cost to the industry of putting the Nutrition Facts box on food is between $260 million and more than $400 million. A federal study looking at the labelling issue discovered half of food producers predicted the new rules would mean a slight rise in the cost of food.

The only other countries with mandatory food labelling are the United States , Brazil , Australia and New Zealand . The U.S. has had mandatory labels since the early 1990s, but ground beef and poultry aren't covered, and trans fats are not included.

Canada will be the only country that includes trans fats in its labels. Trans fat is oil that has been transformed into a semi-solid form through hydrogenation. The resulting fat, when eaten, causes the levels of "bad" fats ( LDL cholesterol) to rise in people. Trans fats are the leading risk factors for coronary heart disease.

Margaret Cheney, the chief of nutrition evaluation for Health Canada , says the country could save $5 billion over 20 years in direct and indirect costs as a result of better nutritional labelling. That includes the costs of treating diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease, as well as loss of productivity.

The 13 nutrients

Recommendations from health professionals, scientists and consumers have resulted in a 13-nutrient Nutrition Facts table:

  • calories
  • fat
  • saturated and trans fats
  • cholesterol
  • sodium
  • carbohydrate
  • fibre
  • sugars
  • protein
  • calcium
  • iron
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C


The facts table will appear on most pre-packaged food but there are exemptions:

  • alcohol
  • fresh fruit and vegetables
  • raw meat and poultry (except if it's ground)
  • raw fish and seafood
  • foods sold in retail places where they are prepared and processed (e.g. a bakery)
  • individual servings of food intended to be eaten immediately (e.g. fast food)

Foods can lose their exemption if their labels or ads carry a nutrient content or health claim, if vitamins or minerals have been added, or if sweeteners such as aspartame have been put in.

The Claims

For the first time, diet-related health claims will be allowed. The claims are specifically worded so manufacturers can't make a direct connection between their product and a health benefit. For example, the product can not say "Eating Brand X will help you reduce your cholesterol levels."

Instead, only certain claims are permitted:

  • a diet low in saturated and trans fat reduces risk of heart disease
  • a diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D, along with regular physical activity, reduces the risk of osteoporosis
  • a diet rich in vegetables and fruit reduces risk of some types of cancer
  • a diet low in sodium and high in potassium reduces risk of high blood pressure
  • chewing gum, hard candy and breath-freshening products can claim prevention of tooth decay/cavities, but cannot use the words "tooth friendly"

These claims are allowed because they are based on scientific evidence.

Restrictions will also be made on the nutrient claims. Claims can be made about calories, saturated fats, polyunsaturates, salt, sugar, fibre and protein. Each claim has restrictions such as:

  • "fat free" is allowed only if there's another statement saying "low fat" or "low in fat"
  • "fat free" means the product has less than 0.5 g fat per 100 g and contains no added fat
  • "light" is only allowed on foods that meet the criteria that they are "reduced in fat" or "reduced in calories"
  • "reduced calorie" or "low calorie" claims on pre-packaged food means it contains at least 25 per cent fewer calories per 100g than the reference food
  • "cholesterol free" and "no cholesterol" claims on pre-packaged food mean there's less than two mg of cholesterol for each reference amount or labelled serving
  • "high in fibre" means there's at least four grams of dietary fibre for each reference amount or per labelled serving
  • nutrient claims in foods for children under two years old can only say: "source of protein," "excellent source of protein," "more protein," "no salt added," and "no added sugar"


While consumer and health groups applaud the move to clearer nutritional labelling, many say the new rules don't strike at the heart of the matter: fast food.

The biggest single source of saturated fats in most Canadian diets is fast foods. A McDonald's Big Mac has almost 600 calories, 34 grams of fat, including 11 grams of saturated fat. That's almost the entire day's allotment of 40 grams of fat in a healthy diet.

Baked goods (cakes, cookies etc…) are also exempt if made and sold on the premises. These products are also a high source of fats and sugars.

Bill Jeffery of the CSPI points out health claims will now be allowed on whole milk and high-fat cheese because they help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease. But the fat content in these products is bound to increase the risk of heart disease in most people.

In the end, Jeffery says Canada's new regulations set a "gold standard" for nutritional labelling. He says they will produce sizeable benefits for the population.

Other groups such as the Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation say the information will help Canadians make healthier choices.