5 min|Rhiannon Lockhart

6 Tips to Navigating Nutrition Labels


It’s common practice for many to look to the nutrition label before buying a product.

Usually we look at the caloric content, fat, and maybe carbohydrate content. However, you can use the nutrition label for so much more. Let’s preface this with: most of your food shouldn’t have a nutrition label! If you focus on eating whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, there won’t be one or there is one with only one ingredient. 
Nutrition Label

Here are 6 tips to navigating nutrition labels from a Registered Holistic Nutritionist:

1. Read the ingredient list before the nutrition label

One of the most common concerns I get from clients is regarding numbers (i.e. calories) on a nutrition label. However, before looking at the nutrition profile of a food, it’s more important to look at the ingredients!

At the end of the day, my goal is for you to eat as many whole, minimally processed foods as possible. This means:

Ingredients to watch out for:

  • Sugars: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup. (1)

  • Food dyes: Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1 (2)

  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

A note on ultra processed vs. processed foods:

Many packaged goods are, to some degree, processed. Minimally processed foods like oats, beans, and single whole grains have been altered from their original form to be easily consumed.

In recent years, you may have heard the term “ultra-processed foods” popping up more to differentiate between processed goods that are more whole ingredients and those that have a long list of things you can’t pronounce, like a twinkie. These are those foods that have been manufactured to be addictive: the perfect ratio of fat, salt and sugar to keep you coming back. Try to avoid these foods for the majority of your diet and stick to those that use real ingredients: i.e. Chips Ahoy vs. homemade chocolate chip cookies.

2. Ignore the claims on the front of the package

“High in fibre”, “Low carb”, “Gluten-Free”, “Plant-Based”. These are common labels that you’ll see across the front of packaging purely for marketing purposes.

Certain diets or nutrients have become pretty buzzy, and marketing teams are savvy at knowing what will help to sell a food, even if the other ingredients are sub-par. This is why we always go back to tip number one when buying packaged foods: check the ingredients.

Packaged goods will often have these labels on the front of the package, and be used in truth. However, the other ingredients are often high in sugar, inflammatory oils or things you can’t pronounce.

3. Check the fibre

Fibre is a non-digestible carbohydrate found in plant foods and is essential for better bowel movements and your overall health. (3) According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the recommended daily intake is about 25-38g, however Canadians only get about 14g of fibre per day. (3) In addition, it is believed that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would eat 100g-150g of fibre per day! (4)

The reality is that many packaged and processed goods are low in fibre but high in sugar. This means, if you mainly eat ultra-processed foods, you likely aren’t hitting your daily requirement for fibre, but could be exceeding your intake of sugar. This results in fatigue, weight gain and cravings.

4. Know your protein needs

I often suggest people look at the protein content on any packaged food item in order to meet their daily requirements. The recommended minimum is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight, however many people find that increasing protein intake helps with overall satiety, craving reduction and weight loss. Consider speaking with Integrative’s Holistic Nutritionist to review your protein requirements to support your overall health.

5. Look for minimal seed oils

Many packaged foods will use a variety of highly processed seed oils. While these have been marketed as “heart healthy”, they tend to be higher in Omega-6 oils. Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid that is important for our overall health. What matters more is the ratio that we consume omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The gold standard is 1:1, yet we typically consume a 15:1 ratio, which can increase inflammation in the body.

If you do consume a lot of foods with processed seed oils and can’t avoid it, increase your omega-3 consumption. Also, aim for “cold pressed”, “expeller pressed” or “extra virgin” listed with the oil to increase the nutrient density.

6. Use the Daily Value (DV) as a guide

When you review a nutrition label, you will see a percent of how much this type of nutrient should take up in a diet of about 2,000 calories. It’s important to remember that these numbers are also based on the minimum amount you need to consume to avoid disease.

For example: According to the FDA, adults and children older than 4 need 90mg of vitamin C per day. (5) This is simply a baseline to avoid scurvy. Many people feel best when either consuming whole foods or supplementing with doses of vitamin C over 1000mg.

If you want help creating your grocery list, supporting a more whole foods diet, and feeling your best, talk to Integrative’s Holistic Nutritionist!

  1. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-read-food-and-beverage-labels

  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23026007/

  3. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fibre.html

  4. Sonnenburg, J., & Sonnenburg, E. (2016). The good gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood, and your long-term health. Penguin Books

  5. https://www.fda.gov/media/9906...

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