How to read food labels?


Food labels can be very confusing and sometimes even misleading! If you take your health seriously, it’s a good idea to learn how to read and understand food labels.

  1. First- Check the date for freshness. Use-by dates mean that the product must be eaten before the specified date for health and safety reasons. Foods should not be eaten after the use-by date. Indeed it is illegal for retailers to sell these products. Best-before dates mean that the food can still be consumed after the specified date but the quality may be diminished.
  1. Ingredients- All of the products contents must be listed and these appear in descending order from largest to smallest by weight. That is, the first-listed ingredient constitutes the largest proportion of the product. This is helpful in understanding exactly what you are purchasing and eating. When checking the ingredients label you may find that the first ingredient is ‘sugar’, for example in jam. You may want to opt for a jam where the fruit is predominant. As for peanut butter, you will often see ‘vegetable oil’ listed. For example, in the Kraft range. This is a completely unnecessary ingredient, as peanuts create their own oil. You are better off purchasing a natural peanut butter with 100% peanuts. I believe Sanitarian and Macro have such a product. It may cost a dollar or more extra because vegetable oil is much cheaper to manufacture than peanuts, but can you really put a price on your health? You can also appreciate the product more and be encouraged to consume smaller portions. Win, win!
  1. Serving size- Always check the serving size and ask yourself: is this a reasonable serving or have they grossly underestimated what the average person would consume in a single sitting? Be careful not to confuse the serving size with the 100g panel. The serving size may be 200g. Therefore you will need to double the sugar, fat content, etc. listed in the 100g panel. The 100g panel is extremely useful for comparing two products side-by-side. For example, comparing the sugar content of yogurts can help you to choose the one with less sugar.
  1. Sugar content- Check that the sugar content is no more than 10g per 100g or 10% of the product. If it is slightly more, check that sugar (or alternative names*) is not listed high on the ingredients list. Avoiding sugar altogether is unnecessary, but I would suggest avoiding products with sugar as the main ingredient.

*Other names for sugar can include dextrose, glucose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, golden syrup, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextran, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, caster sugar, lactose, cane sugar, agave nectar, treacle, molasses, evaporated cane juice.

  1. Fat content- Most important thing to look at is the saturated fat and trans fat. 0g trans fat is best! For saturated fat, less than 3g per 100g is ideal or the lowest possible amount. Be careful of ‘low fat’ products as it can mean ‘more sugar’ – or artificial sweeteners – to reduce the proportion of fat.
  1. Sodium/salt content- Adults only need approximately ½ tsp of salt per day! However, it’s easy to consume excess sodium with the abundance of processed foods, breads, cereals, snack packs, chips, etc. As a guide, less than 120mg of sodium per 100g is great, while more than 400mg per 100g is considered high! A moderate intake would sit somewhere inbetween and closer to the lower end.
  1. Dietary fibre- Not all nutrition panels include dietary fibre. However, if they do, the more the better. Fibre can be one of those tricky nutrients to get enough of, especially if you’re following a low-calorie diet or are a small eater.
  1. Lastly- Try to choose products that use mostly real foods! Be careful of ingredients, such as carrageenan, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols (e.g. sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol), as these can cause digestive problems. I’m not going to tell you to avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce, as there are plenty of strange chemical names for perfectly natural ingredients. For example, dihydrogen oxide sounds scary, but it’s not, it’s just water!


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About Jodie

(ANutr, GDipNut, BSc, BA) Jodie is the director of Moving Nutrition, a postgraduate university qualified nutritionist, personal trainer, ex-dancer and choreographer, and a new mum. Jodie specializes in mood (depression, anxiety, irritability, OCD), gut health, weight concern, and establishing a postive relationship with food. She is also knowledgeable in sports nutrition for recreational athletes and competitive dancers. The Moving Nutrition blog is here to educate, encourage and empower you to live your healthiest, happiest life, and is filled with simple, delicious, real food recipes. Jodie is on a mission to harmonize nutrition science and intuitive wellness. Stay in touch #movingnutrition Read More…

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