By Magpie Group
Knowing that food is healthy and safe to eat is important to all Canadians. That’s where food labels come in – they are excellent tools to assist us with making informed choices about the foods and drinks we buy and consume.
Food labels help you:
- compare and choose between products
- know what ingredients a food product contains
- select products with nutrients you want more of, like iron, fibre, calcium and potassium
- avoid foods with nutrients you want to limit, like sodium, sugars and saturated fat
- choose foods for special diets
Food labelling in Canada is regulated by Health Canada. They create rules regarding food labelling under the Food and Drugs Act that are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Companies that produce and sell food products are responsible for making sure their labels meet all the necessary requirements.
Knowing the difference between voluntary and mandatory labels
While there are mandatory food labels for almost all food products, there are also voluntary labels that food companies can choose to include. Examples include:
- Composition claims to highlight a desirable ingredient, such as “Made with 100% fruit juice,” or emphasize the absence of certain ingredients, like “no added preservatives or artificial flavours.”
- Health claims that describe the potential health effects of a food product, e.g., “A healthy diet rich in vegetable and fruit may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer.”
- Method of production claims that provide information on how products are produced. This includes claims on beef products that can tell us how cattle were raised, housed, fed, transported and processed, and whether or not they were given growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic food production is another example.
Regardless of whether they are mandatory or voluntary, ALL food labels must be truthful and not mislead consumers.
For this article, we will focus on the labels that MUST appear on most pre-packaged food products sold in Canadian grocery stores.
The 5 mandatory labels that most food products must have are:
1. The Nutrition Facts Table identifies a food’s nutritional value and compares it to other products. The label has information on calories and 13 core nutrients: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.
The table is based on serving size, which is the amount of food used to calculate the numbers in the Nutrition Facts table. It is NOT a recommendation of the amount of food you should eat. However, you can compare this to the amount of food you actually eat to get an accurate understanding of the quantity of nutrients you are consuming. For example, if the serving size is 1 cup but you ate 2 cups, you need to double the amounts listed. The same goes for calories.
The table also provides a % Daily Value that can tell you if there is a little (5% or less) or a lot (15% or more) of a nutrient in the food product.
Some food products do not require a Nutrition Facts table on their label. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood, alcohol, and food prepared at the grocery store, like bakery items, sandwiches and salads.
2. A front-of-package nutrition symbol is a new label that will be mandatory as of January 1, 2026 for prepackaged foods that meet or exceed set levels for sodium, sugars or saturated fat. It is intended to:
- Help you make quick, informed choices when shopping for groceries.
- Support health professionals in educating people about foods high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat.
- Discourage consumption of these foods, which have been linked to a variety of health risks, including stroke, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and some types of cancers.
Like the Nutrition Facts Table, there are some foods that do not need to display a nutrition symbol, in particular foods in very small packages or those that are considered beneficial to good health.
3. List of ingredients – Most prepackaged foods in Canada with more than one ingredient must have a list of ingredients. This shows all the ingredients in a prepackaged food in decreasing order of weight.
It also provides important information for people with food allergies and intolerances to foods, including peanuts, egg, soy, sesame seeds, milk, seafood, tree nuts, sulphites, wheat, mustard and gluten. Packaged food products that contain food allergens and gluten sources must include them in the list of ingredients and/or in a statement that begins with “Contains” on their label.
Some ingredients may appear at the end of the list of ingredients in any order, including flavours, food additives, seasonings (except for salt), added vitamins and minerals and flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG).
4. Date marking – Most packaged foods have an expiration date, or more commonly, a best before date. Please note that these two are not the same thing.
Expiration dates are not very common. The expiration date must be printed only on certain food products, including nutritional supplements and infant formula. These food products should not be eaten after the expiration date due to safety concerns.
The best before date must appear on packaged food products that will remain fresh for 90 days or less, such as milk, yogurt or bread. This gives you an estimated date on which an unopened food product will begin to lose its freshness, taste, nutritional value and/or texture. It’s important to note that most unopened foods can still be consumed safely after this date when properly stored.
5. Country of origin indicates the location where the product originated, for example, “Made in Canada” or “Product of Chile.” All prepackaged food products sold in Canada are required to be labelled with the name and address of the company responsible for the product. In addition, when a food product is wholly manufactured outside of Canada, the label must show that the product is imported.
And that’s a very quick overview of food labelling in Canada! To find out more, see the Government of Canada’s website on Food Labels.
Did you know that consumers can play an active role in making sure foods are labelled accurately? If you have a safety concern, such as an unlabelled allergen, or feel that a label is not truthful or misleading, report it to CFIA.