It’s 5:30pm, time for a quick supermarket sweep after a long day at the office. Hazily scanning the back of a cereal box trying to piece together the jigsaw of tiny words and numbers, is this the healthiest option or should I keep looking?…Ugh you know what I’m tired, who has time for all this reading anyway? Into the trolley it goes! If this sounds like a familiar part of your weekly shop you are not alone! One thing we as consumers often know little about is how to actually read food labels -it’s one of those things along with taxes and mortgages that schools don’t teach us, but are arguably among the most important life skills you can have! Worry not, for in this short article we’ll teach you Top 5 Keys To Reading Food Labels Like a Pro!
1. Beware of misleading phrases
First things first, let’s start with the front of the packaging. “Farm fresh”, “hand baked”, “all natural ingredients” so this must guarantee a healthy buy right? Wrong! I’ve been there and made this mistake myself. These are what I like to call ‘wishy-washy phrases’ that companies use to entice and mislead you. McDonalds could call their burgers handmade and farm fresh if they wanted, because none of these words are protected by law, meaning anyone and everyone can use them on any product! The lesson here? – don’t judge a product necessarily by what the manufacturer has placed on the front of the packet, they KNOW they can hoodwink you! Your failsafe? Always, always read the nutritional profile on the back!
2. Familiarise yourself with ingredients lists
This will take practise, but once you’ve done it a few times you will soon realise that ingredients lists are set out very similarly, meaning that once you are familiar with this standard layout you will spend less time studying packaging. By law, if a food/drink product has 2 or more ingredients, all must be listed in order of weight/quantity with the main ingredient first.
Allergens are also easy to identify as they will be in bold. The percentage of an ingredient also must be included if it is mentioned in the name of a product or highlighted in anyway on the packaging, eg. Strawberry pudding – 40% real strawberries.
3. Interpreting nutritional composition
This is probably the part of reading food labels that people find the most challenging, there are lots of numbers in tables that don’t make a lot of sense to the average person doing their weekly shop. Here’s the good news – these tables are actually set out pretty logically and are easy to read once you know how, so allow us to guide you!
All packaging must contain the energy value of the product (in calories kcal/kilojoules kj), protein, fat and carbohydrate (in grams). It is optional to also include saturated fat, sugar, fibre and sodium. An important thing to note is that the amount for each nutrient will always be shown per 100g/100ml of the product, so consider this and don’t confuse the amounts as being for the entire product. For example, a packet of biscuits may say 400kcal/100g but it could be that one biscuit just weighs 20g.
4. What’s a little/what’s a lot?
Once you have located the individual nutrient content of a product, the next step is deciding whether it is ideal for you. What you deem as healthy/satisfactory will vary depending on your personal requirements, for example if you are trying to lose weight you may be searching for foods with a low calorie content, whereas someone who needs to gain weight and lower their blood pressure would search for high calories and low salt. Below I have outlined what the DOH (Department of Health) currently deems as a little/a lot:
|A lot (/100g)||A little (/100g)|
|>20g fat||<3g fat|
|>5g saturated fat||<1.5g saturated fat|
|>1.5g salt||<0.3g salt|
|>0.6g sodium||<0.1g sodium|
|>15g sugar||<5g sugar|
5. The Traffic Light Labelling System
The traffic light labelling system is a convenient way for consumers to quickly glance at a product and decide whether it meets their needs nutritionally. It works by having a 3 colour system where green indicates a low quantity, amber indicates a medium quantity, and red indicates a high quantity. This is based on the data below per 100g of product, some shoppers keep this card below in their purses to refer to whilst out and about.
So, these are my most important tips for reading food labels. Learn these small details and you should become a whiz at reading labels in no time! If you would like any further information on food labels you can visit the Food Standards Agency website which has lots of resources and latest news on labelling guidelines. Happier shopping!