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How to Understand Food Labels & Health Claims

How to Understand Food Labels & Health Claims


Searching for the highest-quality and healthiest products can be a challenge. With an abundance of misleading labels and non-specific claims, making the right choices can seem overwhelming.  As someone who reviews safety and efficacy (of product claims) as part of my career, I’ve curated a list of what to look for so that everyone can more easily make well-informed decisions. These are simple tips any consumer can utilize in order to make the best choices for themselves and their family. Being a mother of a pre-schooler has made making informed decisions more important to me now than ever. My hope is this quick guide can help you to better understand food labels. 

Is the product safe? 

If you are looking at a Natural Health Product for a child (or for anyone for that matter), the label should have what is known as a “NPN” number (this stands for “Natural Product Number”). This is an 8 digit number that signifies Health Canada has reviewed the company’s application and deemed the product to be safe, effective and of high quality based on the data provided. Also, as all natural health products make a claim to improve health in some way, the company distributing the product must provide appropriate scientific evidence that back up their claims/recommended uses and gain Health Canada’s approval of their claims. 

Furthermore, keep an eye out for any risk information on a label, including cautions and warnings, contraindications (these are “do not use” statements for any conditions where a product should not be used), or known adverse reactions (these are reactions that have been reported or might occur for a product - just to be aware).  For food products, I typically check that the package is intact with no signs of teas or leakage and is fully sealed. I’m also sure to review any instructions that indicate if the product has to be washed and ensure that the product is prepared as per the instructions. This maximizes both safety and taste for my child (and for me too).

Understanding Ingredients

This is a tough one. I like to opt for products that have a very minimal ingredients list, but in some cases, products contain a long list of ingredients. If that is the case and it’s too time-consuming to review all the ingredients, there are other key statements on the label that will give you a general review of what’s in the product. These types of statements could include: all-natural, contains natural ingredients, herbal ingredients, gluten-free, Certified Organic, Nut-free, Dairy-free, Made with plant-derived ingredients, etc..and the list goes on. 

Direction of use and Intended Age:

Natural Health Products have directions of use and a specific intended age for use. Make sure to look at this information as it is very important to follow the direction of use and ensure that the product you have is right for your child’s age, otherwise, there could be safety issues or the quantity for the recommended use may not be sufficient.  Also, if the product has a duration of use (e.g. do not exceed for use more than X days / weeks), please ensure to follow this instruction. Oftentimes this is overlooked, but it’s extremely important. 

Nutrition Info for Foods:

Look at the Nutrition Facts Table. I try to aim for products that are not too high in sugar, and that provide sources of nutrients such as core vitamins & minerals, as well as protein, ‘healthy’ fats (our well known friends the omega -3 and omega-6 fatty acids), and fibre.  I generally try to avoid products that contain trans fats and a high sugar content. Providing kids with natural sugars from fruit or fruit products as much as possible is the best approach for a healthier lifestyle. Plus it helps to prevent any tooth-decay (and a host of other health issues) issues down the road. 

Expiry date: 

I check the expiry date to ensure the product is well within the parameters. Keep in mind not all products are required to list an expiry, but if there is a date,  I try to keep in mind when I plan to use the product for my child. Using a product past the expiry date means it may not work as effectively or may be spoiled.  


Making Time for Food Safety

It might take you a few extra minutes here or there to review a label while shopping, but a quick review goes along way for safety and the benefit or your child’s health.  Also, remember you are a consumer, so it is OK to question things on labels! You can easily contact (phone or email of the product maker) to answer any of your questions or concerns.  If time saving is on your agenda, the good news is Vitarock is one company who has done the review for you. The products that are on Vitarock have been carefully selected for safety with the onus of selected products being as close to pure, green, safe, fair as possible.  Sit back with a cup of tea and coffee, and you will find that the all of the specific features are highlighted for each product. From now on 

Did this help you to better understand food labels? Leave a comment and let me know!