Understanding Nutrition Labels
Nutrition labels tell you nearly everything you need to know about the food that you are eating, but rather surprisingly, not many people know how to read these correctly.
All pre-packaged food has to have nutrition labels clearly printed on them, so help you to choose between products. It also serves as a way of checking whether the food that you are choosing to eat are high in fat, salt and sugars; all of which we should be consuming in moderation.
All food labels include information on energy in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), which are what most people know to be calories. You can also expect to see all of the information regarding the fat content, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. The nutritional information that is provided is normally per 100g, or per portion, so it is important to check this, so you are taking away accurate information.
To make it easier though, all supermarkets and food manufacturers actually highlight the energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt content on the front of the packaging, in a traffic light colour coded system, so you can quickly see what you are eating.
In order to really understand exactly what these labels mean, it is important to know what a balanced diet includes. We are always told that we should be eating a balanced diet, but how many of us would actually be able to reel off what this means? You should be aiming to eat at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables every single day. Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, although you should try and choose wholegrain or high fibre where possible. Instead of consuming a lot of dairy, try and limit this, and choose some alternatives, like soya. Choose low fat and lower sugar options where possible. Protein is absolutely essential, so make sure that you are eating beans, pulses, fish, eggs or meat. In fact, for a completely balanced diet, we should be aiming to eat two portions of fish every single week, one of which should be an oily fish, like salmon or mackerel. Try and make healthy choices when it comes to oil, and have them in small amounts. Wiser choices include unsaturated oils and spreads. On top of this, it is important that you are getting the right amount of fluids as well. The recommended amount is six to eight cups every day, and these should be low in sugar, or sugar-free.
Although many people will likely know the basis of a balanced diet, still, the majority of people in the UK are eating and drinking too many calories, fat, sugar and salt and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre. But why is this when the food packets are so clearly labelled? Is it because people just don’t know what the figures all mean?
How to know if the food is high in fats, sugar or salt
So you have picked up your food, but sometimes it is difficult to know what these numbers mean unless you know what is considered to be high or low levels of a certain substance.
The NHS highlights these guidelines to help you decide if the food that you are about to eat is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar.
Look for the total fat content. A high-fat content is more than 17.5g of fat per 100g, and low fat is 3g of fat or less per 100g. A food is high in saturated fat if It has more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g, and low is 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g. Food is considered to be high in sugar if there are more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g, and it is low if there is 5g of total sugars or less per 100g. The salt content is considered to be high if there is more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium) and it is considered to be low if there is 0.3g or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium). So, if you are trying to cut down on one group, look for the labels that contain figures that are on the lower end of the level.
So, what do the food labels mean and how do I read them?
There are some simple tips that can really help you to understand the food labels, and exactly what they mean.
Begin by looking at the serving information at the top of the label, as this will tell you the recommended size of a single serving, and the total number of servings per container or package. This is really important as it gives you a better idea around what the serving size of this product should be.
After you have looked at the number of servings, turn your attention to the total calories per serving. If you sit and eat a pudding for example that was meant to feed two, to yourself, you will know that you will have to double the number of calories that you have just consumed.
Once you have done this, turn your attention to the % Daily Value. The % Daily Value will put the nutrients on a scale from 0% to 100%, and will tell you if there is a little or a lot of one particular nutrient in the serving of the pre-packaged food that you wanted 5% of the Daily Value or anything less that this is considered to be a little, and 15% Daily Value or more is considered to be a lot. Both are important and you should know which nutrients you should eat less of, and what ones you should eat more of.
As a rule, you should be limiting the amounts of saturated fat and sodium in your food, and completely avoid trans fat altogether. Where possible, you should try and pick foods that contain smaller levels of these nutrients. However, you should be aiming to get a good amount of beneficial nutrients, like dietary fibre, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins and nutrients that you require daily.
Other helpful hints and tips for reading food nutrition labels
The first ingredient is always the worst. This is because the ingredients are listed in order of weight, or quantity. So, to put It simply, if the first ingredient is sugar, it quite simply means that the snack or food that you are about to turn to is full of sure and you should put it straight down again! The catch is when more that one type is used, as they can label each ingredient separately, instead of putting on the total number, which will obviously bump them up the list.
Anything ending in -ose is sugar, which is often where people fall down and eat more than they were considering. There are so many different names for sugar that are used on nutrition labels, to get it more hidden; however, we have a handy hint of just looking at what has -ose at the end of it.
Whilst we are on the topic of sugar, be aware that claiming that a food is ‘sugar-free’ is not always the best, and is in fact, just another marketing claim. Although this is not the case in all products, it could actually mean that it is refined sugar-free, which allows companies to still use syrups, or natural sweeteners, such as molasses or honey. That said, it could mean that the product is in fact completely free of sugar, but if this is the case, the likelihood is that they are using artificial or zero-calorie sweeteners or sugar alcohols. The artificial sweeteners will not have any effect on your blood sugar, and will likely have absolutely no calories, but they will taste similar, thus satisfying your crave.
It is recommended though that you try and avoid large amounts of artificial sweeteners, as well as, minimising your intake of laxative-like sugar alcohols. Do not panic though, these are ok to use in moderation.