Knowing your food labels

Learning to understand food packaging labels is a useful tool to help you make informed decisions about the foods you buy.  Here are a few tips to help you crack their code:

  1. The ingredients list.  This tells you everything the item contains.  Bear in mind that sugar can be disguised under 40-50 different names, (see this article).  It’s preferably best to avoid oils, as these are usually rancid or trans fats.  One to avoid for sure where possible is palm oil.  Look for products that have less than five ingredients.
  1. Allergy warnings.  The usual allergens will be highlighted in bold and are usually nuts, wheat, eggs and dairy.  Remember the acronym BROW for gluten-containing grains: barley, rye, oats (unless specified as gluten-free), wheat.
  1. Suitable for vegans/vegetarians.  This will have v, vg, vgn, or ve on the label and it means it is free of animal products.  Honey is vegetarian but not vegan.
  1. The nutritional label is useful to know how to decode too. Marketing tricks can sometimes be misleading and tempt us to spend more on items with very similar nutrition.  Here are some of the things to bear in mind:
    • Is it organic? If the label says organic, it probably is.  This means that at least 95% of their ingredients are organic and certified by the Soil Association.  You will see the logo on the label.
    • High-protein. For a product to be able to make this claim it has to provide 20% of its calories from protein.  If it says ‘source of protein’, it can be 12% or above.
    • Low-sugar. This means that a food item has less than 5g of sugar per 100g.  If it says ‘no added’ sugar, it means there is no extra added sugar in the product, other than its naturally-occurring ones (e.g. pure fruit juice, nut bars etc).
    • High-fibre. For a product to be true to this label, it needs to provide at least 6g fibre per 100g, or 3g per 100 calories.  It can also state ‘a source of fibre’, which means it provides half of that amount.
    • Low-fat. This label will be found on products that are naturally high in saturated fat and that have had this removed to contain less than its standard version.  E.g. yoghurts, chocolate, sausages, pies etc.  Low-fat means less than 3g per 100g, whilst reduced fat means 25% lower than the standard version.  Crisps are another example (these foods are naturally high in saturated fat, so beware of even their reduced fat versions and what other additives they may have (usually sugar) as a result.
    • Gluten-free. This will mean there is no gluten in the product.  It can be that this is as a natural occurrence (e.g. beans are naturally free of gluten), or as a result of the use of gluten-free alternatives, e.g. flour.  Beware again of the multiple of other additives the product may have in order to make it attractive, palatable and functional (as a cooking ingredient).
    • Low-salt. This will have to have less than 0.3g per 100g of salt.  If, instead of salt, the label lists sodium, this amount has to be multiplied by 2.5 to find the amount of salt.  The maximum recommended amount of salt to be consumed each day is 6g, so beware of packaged foods, which can contribute upto 75% of our RDA of salt.

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