How to read food labels

The world of food shopping can feel overwhelming sometimes. With the amount of different choices out there to suit different diets and different ideas about what is healthy (i.e. low fat), it can be hard for us to decide what we should be buying – and that’s without delving into the long ingredients list and the confusing nutrition information table.

I have put together my little guide to reading food labels to help you make the best choices in your food shop:

Ingredients list:

Legally, each food item must include a list of all the ingredients used to make the product. This will usually be located at the back of the box or packaging.

Ideally, you would want to to pick products that have the least ingredients. This means that they will have less additives and preservatives added to them and are more likely to be in a more natural state (depending on the type of product). For example, you want a tin of chickpeas to just contain chickpeas in the ingredients (and water if they are chickpeas in water) rather than containing lots of additives and preservatives.

Following on from that last point, I follow a basic rule that if you can’t pronounce an ingredient on the list, most of the time it is an additive or preservative so best to avoid (or at least minimize how often you have it).

Usually, ingredients will be listed in order of quantity with the ingredient that makes up the largest amount of the product being the first one listed. I often look at the ingredients of a product to see if it contains any sugar and see how far up it is on the list. If you see the word “sugar” – plain and simple – in the list, it is added sugar which can cause problems for our blood sugars and our waist lines. If sugar is listed high up on the list, that product will contain a lot of sugar so should be avoided on a regular basis.

Another note on sugar; educate yourself on the different names for this sweet substance. These include:

  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Syrup
  • Nectar
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Anything ending in ‘ose’ e.g. fructose, glucose, dextrose and maltose

Bear in mind that sugars that come from natural sources are less of a problem than added sugars.

Nutrition Information

Also on a package, you will find the nutritional breakdown of the food item which details the amounts of calories, carbohydrate, protein, fat and often vitamins and minerals in grams.

In some cases, this table will use the traffic light system. This is a system using the colours green, orange and red to inform consumers whether a product contains too much of something. For example, if a packet of biscuits shows a red colour on the sugar section of the nutritional information table, that means there is more sugar than the daily recommended amount for us. Food with red colours on nutrients such as sugar, saturated fat and salt should be kept to a minimum. Orange colours are moderate so should be used sparingly while green is low so these are the best choices. This colour code makes reading food labels and making the right choices much easier for consumers.

For those nutrition labels that don’t use the traffic light system, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Sugar:

  • Good= 5g or less per 100g
  • Moderate= More than 5g but less than 22.5g per 100g
  • Too much= More than 22.5g per 100g

Fat and Saturated Fat:

  • Low fat= 3g or less per 100g
  • High fat= 17.5g or more per 100g
  • Low saturated fat= 1.5g or less per 100g
  • High saturated fat= 5g or more per 100g

Remember that not all fat is bad. Saturated fat (which comes from processed foods and fatty meat) is the one that you do not want to overdo whereas unsaturated fat (which comes from nuts, seeds and avocado) is better for us so my advise is to concentrate on lowering saturated fat rather than cutting out fat completely.

It’s also worth noting that just because something is labelled as low fat, it does not mean it’s healthy. Many low fat products such as yoghurts (particularly flavoured ones) will have added sugar to help improve the taste lost from lowering the fat content. If you do opt for a lower fat product, be sure to check the sugar content to ensure meets the guidelines stated above.

Salt:

  • Low salt: 0.3g or less per 100g (or 0.1g/100mg sodium)
  • High salt: 1.5g or more per 100g (or 0.6g/600mg sodium)

Please be aware that some products will list sodium rather than salt. To work out the salt content from sodium, you need to multiply the sodium amount by 2.5.

You want to aim to consume no more than 6g of salt per day.

Added vitamins and minerals:

Many products such as fortified cereals, dairy free milks and dairy free yoghurts will have added vitamins and minerals such as calcium and B vitamins. These are good products to opt for particularly if you avoid dairy products because you’re vegan or have a dairy or lactose allergy or intolerance. Keep an eye on the front and back of the product to see if a product adds these little extras.

 

I hope this little guide helps you to make more informed choices on your food shop.

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