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DECODING YOUR FOOD LABELS: WHAT’S REALLY IN YOUR FOOD?

If you’re keeping fit, loosing weight or watching what you eat, chances are you’ll find yourself turning over the packets and tins you pick up in the supermarket and having a look at the food labels to see just what really goes in to what you’re buying. The food labels on the back of our foods are there to give us all the info we need, so you can be confident that you’re buying precisely what you want to buy, and are choosing the best brand, the best food, or the best ingredient for you.

 

WHAT’S ON THE FOOD LABEL?

Manufacturers are legally obliged to provide a lot of this information, but some of it is provided voluntarily. By law, manufacturers need to provide:

  • the name of the food
  • its weight or volume (unless it’s under 5g)
  • its ingredients (in descending order, from most to least abundant)
  • preparation instructions
  • the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or seller
  • and its place (i.e. country) of origin

Many food labels also have nutritional information on them, which you can use to find out precisely what is going into your diet—from the salt in your crisps to the fibre in your cereal. This kind of information is vital to following a healthy diet, as you can use it to compare foods and brands, and choose the one you think is the best.

ARE MANUFACTURERS MEANT TO SUPPLY THIS INFORMATION?

The information on food labels is strictly controlled. Manufacturers are not permitted, for instance, to state or imply that a food can prevent or cure medical conditions (like heart disease) but they are permitted to say that the food can be of benefit (e.g. by saying that it “helps maintain a healthy heart”) provided there is good evidence to support the claim.

Likewise, at the moment food manufacturers are not legally obliged to give nutritional information, unless they make a nutritional claim in their packaging or advertising—for instance, claiming that their product is low fat, or high fibre. If they do opt to provide this info, then they have to abide by certain rules—which brings us to the Big 4 of nutritional labels.

Legally, food labels have to tell you four key stats:

  • the energy value of the food, in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal)
  • the protein content
  • the amount of carbohydrate
  • and the amount of fat in grams (g)

It’s the protein, carb content, fat content and energy in kilojoules and kilocalories (don’t get confused—a kilocalorie is just a calorie by another name!) are the big four. They in turn are paired up with the little four:

  • the amount of sugar
  • saturated fat
  • fibre content
  • and sodium—the amount of salt this is equivalent might also be listed

These eight figures together are key to understanding the nutritional value of what you’re buying.

 

SO HOW DO I USE THESE FOOD LABELS?

Reading Food LabelsWhen you turn over that packaging and start browsing the numbers, things can get a little confusing. But there are lots of ways you can use these information to understand more about what you’re eating, and how these foods can fit into your diet.

The basic rules are always the same: check to see if foods carry high or low levels of fat, sugar and salt. Check the GDAs or RDAs (‘guideline’ or ‘recommended’ daily allowances), figures that give you a rough idea of how these products can fit into your daily diet.

But what exactly are you looking out for?

 

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

How, for instance, do you know if a food is high in fat? Well, take a look at the label to see how much fat the food contains—generally, this will be a figure, in grams, of fat per 100g of product. If it’s listed, take a look at the separate figure for saturated fat, using this as a guide to what constitutes a little, or a lot:

  • a LOT of fat would correspond to 20g > of fat per 100g, or 5g+ of saturated fat per 100g
  • a LITTLE fat would correspond to < 3g fat or less per 100g, < 1g of saturate per 100g

If the total amount of fat lies between 3g and 20g per 100g, this is a MODERATE amount of fat; between 1g and 5g of saturates would be a MODERATE amount of saturated fat. As a rule of thumb, try to choose more foods that only contain a little fat (3g fat or less per 100g), and cut down on foods that contain a lot of fat (20g fat or more per 100g). There are some relatively “healthy” foods—like olive oil—that fall down on this rule, but think about how much olive oil you might use to fry an onion, compared to how much saturated fat might be in a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar.

 

THE SAME RULES APPLY…

Use similar rules for all the other things you might be keeping an eye on in your diet. How, then, would you know if a food is high in sugar? Well, take a look at the food labels. There’ll likely be a figure headed “Carbohydrates (of which sugars):

  • a LOT of sugar would correspond to 10g > of sugar per 100g
  • a LITTLE sugar would correspond to < 2g of sugar per 100g

If the amount of sugars is between 2g and 10g per 100g, then you can consider that a MODERATE amount.

This figure, however, doesn’t differentiate between natural and added sugars. For that, you have to switch to the ingredients list. Remember, the ingredients are always listed with the most abundant first—so watch out not only for sugar, but for words used to describe sugar or sugary additives like sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey. If you see one of those lurking near the top of the list, you can have a fairly good idea that the food is likely to be high in added sugar in particular.

 

WHAT ABOUT SALT?

The same rules apply for salt. Salt is often listed as sodium on food labels, so as a rule of thumb multiply the amount of sodium listed on a label by 2.5 to get a rough idea of its equivalent salt content. Then, use this guide:

  • a LOT of salt would correspond to 1.25g > of salt per 100g of food, or put another way,
0.5g > of sodium per 100g
  • a LITTLE salt would correspond to < 0.25g salt per 100g, or
0.1g sodium per 100g
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