Nutrition 101: Food Labels Decoded

Decoding a food label can sometimes feel like translating a foreign language. They’re full of unfamiliar words, measurements, shorthand references, and nutritional value statistics. If you’re lost when you turn over a food packet, you’re not alone. We asked our resident nutritionist Caroline Farrell for her top tips on decoding nutrition labels, here’s what she said:

 

The basics

Nutrition information is displayed using a “traffic light system”. The traffic light colours show how much energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt a food contains, and the grams of each in one serving. This is displayed as:

  • Green – low amount
  • Amber – medium amount
  • Red –high amount

Nutrition tables and ingredients are usually found on the back of a pack. While this is useful, if you really want to eat healthily, here are my ten top things to watch out for on labels:

1) The recommended guidelines are for the general population. However, our individual requirements do vary depending on our physical activity, weight, body composition and individual health, such as whether we have conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

2) Take care with portion sizes, as a manufacturer’s definition of a portion or serving size may be different from yours. For example, most breakfasts cereal manufacturers define as portion as 30g. Most people’s portions would be considerably bigger than this.

3) A food portrayed as high fat on the traffic light label doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. This is because not all fats are unhealthy. For example, olive oil, nuts, and nut butters are all healthy foods that are high in monounsaturated fats. Also, try and avoid foods that contain trans-fats. These have been linked to several health conditions such as heart disease. These are often found in margarines, crackers, confectionery, cakes, biscuits and baked goods. Even if the ingredient label says it has zero grams of trans fats, it may still have small amounts. Therefore, you need to check the ingredients lists for terms such as “hydrogenated fats” or “hydrogenated vegetable oils”.

4) If you are trying to lose weight, try to choose foods that keep you fuller for longer by ensuring they contain plenty of protein. A good rule of thumb is to look for a food that contains about 7g protein per serving.

5) If you are vegetarian or vegan, there are often hidden animal products in foods. For example, gelatine is often used in sweets and yoghurts.

6) If you have a food allergy, certain allergens (such as milk, eggs, gluten, crustaceans, soya, peanuts etc.) must legally be displayed in bold on the ingredient list.

7) Try and opt for foods low in sugar. Ideally, aim for less than 6g per 100g.  Watch out for foods high in hidden sugars. This is especially true for low-fat or fat-free products. A good example is low-fat flavoured yoghurt, as fat is often replaced with sugar to improve taste. There are over 50 different terms for sugar so it can be hard to spot on the ingredient list. Names to look out for include:

– dextrose
– fructose
– glucose
– maltose
– sucrose
– monosaccharide
– disaccharide
– honey
– molasses
– syrups (for example, treacle, corn and maple syrups)
– fruit juice concentrates

8) Be careful of sugar-free products. These often contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, NutraSweet, Splenda, sucralose, and sugar alcohols. Sweeteners can actually increase your hunger and disrupt your healthy gut bacteria.

9) High-fibre foods may also keep you fuller for longer and support healthy digestion. Look for foods that contain 20g of fibre per 100g.

10) Ingredients are listed in order of weight, from highest to lowest. The longer the ingredient list, the more likely the food has been highly processed. Also, if the top three ingredients include sugar, refined grains or something you’ve never heard of before it’s probably best to avoid that food. Also, generally speaking, if you don’t recognise a word on the ingredients list it’s best to avoid that food.

We hope Caroline’s top 10 tips will help you decode future labels. If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy: 14 best ever natural cold remedies.