How to Read Food Labels
With all of the bad stuff that is put into food these days it is handy to have the skill of being able to read food labels and be able to understand the nutritional value of the food you’re eating.
If you like, you can go and grab a couple of products out of your fridge or pantry so that you can practice the following and save yourself a hassle next time you head to the grocery shop. Most nutrition fact labels are similar and often contain the following facts:
This is handy to compare with other products to see how many servings you’re getting.
Servings per container
Be careful with products that seem like they would be one serve but actually have more than one serving. For example, a small drink that you would think you could drink in one go could really have 3 servings. It’s always good to check for this because you don’t want to consume excess calories that you didn’t even know you were eating/ drinking, because this can certainly add up at the end of the day and cause weight gain.
Calories (per serving)
This tells you how much energy the product will give you. Remember, if you have more than ‘one serving’ you are consuming more than the calories stated. If ‘calories per serving’ are 150 and you have 2 servings, you are instead consuming 300 calories.
As a general guide for a SNACK:
- under 100 calories per serving is considered low
- 100 - 300 calories is considered moderate
- 400 calories or more is high.
As a general guide for a MEAL:
- 200-300 calories per serving is considered low
- 400 - 600 calories is considered moderate
- 700 calories or more is high.
Of course everything depends on the type of food you’re eating and your personal daily calorie requirements, but this is a good general guide to go by.
*The following nutrition facts can be examined either by ‘per serving’ or ‘per 100g’. Examining by ‘per 100g’ is good for comparing products.
- Saturated Fat
- Trans Fat
Aim for products with less than 5g total fat per 100g. When you are comparing products try to get the product with the least amount of saturated and trans fat, as these fats are bad for you and increase your chances of developing health problems. The same goes for products containing cholesterol.
Go for products that are ‘low salt’ or ‘reduced salt’, as these will have less than 120mg of salt per 100g. You’re aiming for products with less than 300mg of sodium.
Too much sodium in your diet can lead to high blood pressure, which is why it is best not to have large amounts of this ingredient.
- Dietary Fibre
Aim for the product with the highest amount of fibre which is good for digestive health. 3 - 6g of fibre per serve is considered high. As for sugar, go for products with less than 10g of sugar per 100g, unless the product contains fruit (contains fructose, which is not a bad sugar) in which case allow for 20g per 100g.
Protein & Carbohydrates (general)
How much you need of these depends on your personal daily caloric requirements. Your body needs both of these nutrients for basic bodily functions, so if a product is high in one of these ingredients it is fine; as long as you’re not exceeding your daily caloric requirement and the sugar content is not too high.
Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron
The more of these a product has, the better, so pick the product containing the most of these nutrients. Vitamins are needed for many things within the body such as digestion and muscle function. Calcium is needed to keep bones healthy and prevent osteoporosis. Iron is needed for the development of healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body.
Ingredients are listed from largest to smallest by weight, so the first few ingredients are what the product is primarily made of. Next to each ingredient it often has the percentage of how much of that particular ingredient is in the product.
Words that mean:
Fat – Vegetable oil/ fat, lard, coconut oil, butter, milk solids, animal fats/ oils, shortening, copha, palm oil, monoglycerides, diglycerides.
Sugar – Sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, honey, dissacharides, glucose syrup, corn syrup.
Salt – Sodium, sodium bicarbonate/ ascorbate/ lactate, Na, MSG, monosodium glutamate, yeast extracts, baking soda, vegetable salt.
· % Fat free – This can only be stated on a product that is ‘low fat’ and it is based on the weight of fat in 100g. This means that in a food that is marked as ‘98% fat free’, 2g in 100g of that food is fat.
· Reduced fat – This refers to a comparison of the original product that is higher in fat, which means the ‘reduced fat’ version could still be relatively high in fat, but it is at least 25% less fat than the original product. An example of this is full fat yogurt and reduced fat yogurt.
· ‘Light’ or ‘Lite’ – Be careful of this one, it may just be an advertising trick and actually mean light in colour, flavour, taste, etc; but not light in calories, fat, or sugar.
· No added sugar – It doesn’t have any sugars added to the product, but it may have natural sugars in the product already (e.g. fructose from fruit), so it could still actually be high in sugar.
· ‘Diet’ – Normally means artificially sweetened.
· Cholesterol free – This is not necessarily low fat, because cholesterol is only found in foods containing animal fat, which means the product could still contain plenty of plant based fat.
· Source of Fibre – It has more than 1g of fibre per 100g, but do remember that high fibre products are considered to have at least 3g of fibre per 100g.