How to read food labels?
Food manufacturers can use some clever marketing tricks to sell you their products. Even though consumers today are more health-conscious and try to make wise food choices, the food manufacturers are often dishonest in their marketing practices using the packaging to advertise one aspect of the product, disguising it as a healthy choice. Let’s look into how to read product labels to be able to tell a truly healthy product from mislabelled junk.
Don’t trust the claim on the front of the packaging
Sure, some products which are advertised as healthy will truly be good for you. However, food manufacturers can get away with making health claims on the package with bright big letters to lure you in. For example, the trend for “0% fat” products: did you know that fat is the main flavour-carrying component of food? If what you’re buying has no fat in it, then the flavour must be brought-out by added sugar or flavour-enhancing additives.
Another example is breakfast cereals: while the packaging may only advertise ‘high in fibre’ or ‘wholegrain’, majority of breakfast cereals sold in the shops have lots of added sugar.. (Why not make you own granola mix at home instead of buying the ready ones?)
It is easy to be fooled by the claim made on the package but remember the benefit advertised on the cover may be outweighed by what’s in the ingredients list!
Understand the nutrition claims on the cover
Nutrition claims are statements such as ‘no added sugars’, ‘fat-free’ or ‘light’. There are rules for when these claims can be added on the packaging. However, while they encourage us to make some seemingly healthier choices, they may also be misleading with regard to overall healthiness of the particular product. E.g. ‘no added sugars’ literally means that there was no sugar (whether brown, white or another type of sugar) added to the food. However, it may still contain lots of naturally occurring sugars such as those from fruit or unhealthy sugar substitutes may have been added.
Another example is the ‘high in fibre’ claim which can be placed on the food packaging when the fibre content is equal or higher than 3g of fibre per 100g of food (or 1.5g of fibre per 100kcal of food). If you’re looking for good sources of fibre in your diet you may be better off turning to foods that are naturally high in fibre such as haricot beans (11g of fibre per 100g), avocados (7g of fibre per 100g) or chia seeds (34g of fibre per 100g or 10g of fibre in approximately 2 tablespoons).
Read the ingredients list
Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest amount. This means that if sugar is listed first it is the main ingredient! A good rule of thumb is to look at the first 3-5 ingredients as they make the most of what you’re about to eat.
Another thing to watch out for is the list of ingredients on the whole: for many items the shorter it is, the better! A long list of ingredients suggests that the product was highly processed. Let’s compare two types of snacks: a Kellogg’s Special Chocolate and Raspberry Cereal Bar and Nakd Peanut Delight raw fruit & peanut wholefood bar. See the difference? ?
Did you know that there are many names for sugar? You may not recognize many of them when reading the ingredients list. On top of that, food manufacturers often use many different types of sugar to make their individual quantities smaller and be able to name them further down the list. Here are some of the most popular names of sugar in ingredients list:
- Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar… anything with ‘sugar’ in it is simply… sugar.
- Types of syrup: glucose syrup, carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup – syrup is sugar in liquid form.
- Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.
Note: glucose is a ‘fancy’ name for ‘sugar’ and is very often used in the ingredients list.
Understand the nutrition facts table/label
A breakdown of food’s nutritional value (calories and nutrients) is a requirement for all food products. It was introduced to help consumers make more informed choices. However, it may sometimes be difficult to understand the facts listed and to compare two types of foods.
The nutrition label should include information on: energy (usually displayed in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) often references ‘calories’), fat, saturated fat (or saturates), carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. Here are some things to look out for from the NHS guidance:
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)1
In the UK, some front-of-pack nutrition labels also use the colour coding with traffic light system to indicate if the food contents high (red), medium (yellow) or low (green) amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars or salt. It is best to always go for the labels with green colour all the way.
Understand the serving size
Food labels may include additional information on nutritional and energy values per serving size. Unfortunately, what the manufacturer claims is a ‘standard serving size’ may not be what you would normally eat as one serving. An excellent example here is crisps: the small package of crisps is a single serving at 25g and contains 130kcal (an approximate value). Therefore, a large pack (circa 150g) contains 6 servings and a whopping 780 kcal. Have you ever eaten a full large pack of crisps while watching a movie?
It is important to understand what your serving size would be and then verify that you understand the nutrition and energy you get from consuming the food. Don’t assume the packet size is a single serving.
Another item to consider relates to the % of RI (Reference Intake) for an average adult. While this information is meant to be helpful to the consumers, it can be very misleading. Why? Well, we’re not all ‘average adults’. According to the NHS: “unless the label says otherwise, reference intakes are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity”2. Unfortunately, most of us these days do not achieve the average amount of physical activity therefore their recommended calorie intake would be lower than the RI value. If you want to follow as calorie-controlled diet and have a weight target you want to achieve, we recommend calculating your specific calorie intake requirements. If you need help with that, please get in touch and our friendly team at Fitasty will help you!
There is a lot to consider when trying to understand food labelling and making more informed choices with regards to food. Remember, the more you practice, the easier it will be for you to quickly tell if the food is good for you or not. Good luck!