How Not To Get Caught In A Food Label Trap: Tips & Tricks

  • 5 mins read
  • Nutrition
  • Diet and Healthy Food
  • Jillian Lai Mei Siew

We have all come across those tiny labels behind our foods and snacks that can be pretty hard to read at times. These labels hold lots of information and secrets about our food that is hidden in plain sight. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a fitness freak, it is important to understand the nutritional value of foods that are being consumed by us as well as our loved ones. In case you need some help in understanding food labels, or how to read food labels correctly, you have come to the right spot!

Nutrition labels or food product labels are a detailed description of the nutrients, calories, and other facts about the food item inside the package. They can help you choose between products and keep a check on the amount of foods you’re eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

Learning how to decipher food labels can help you identify and pick foods rich in nutrition that add to good health and lifestyle. Here’s what you should look for in these labels.

Components of a food label

Nutrition labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of the packaging. You can learn how to read labels on food products by following this blog step by step. Food labels can provide the following information:

Serving Information

The serving size reflects the amount that people usually eat or drink. They are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams (g). It is important to note that the serving size is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.

Nutrients

It shows you some key nutrients that impact your health. It includes information on energy (kJ/kcal), fat, proteins, fibres, saturates (saturated fat), carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams(UK) or per serving size(USA).

Nutrients you should minimise: Saturated Fat, Trans fats, Sodium, and Added Sugars.

These are the nutrients associated with adverse health effects. Their contents are usually higher in processed foods.

How to understand if a food is high in fat, sugar or salt?

As discussed before, these nutrients can lead to adverse effects. Added sugars, high sodium and fat content can lead to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc. Out of all the fats, trans fat is the worst for one’s health as it increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Picking up zero trans fats products might be a good start when it comes to avoiding unhealthy foods. Here are some more guidelines you can refer to:

Total fat

  • High: > 17.5g of fat per 100g
  • Low: ≤3g of fat per 100g

Saturated fat

  • High: > 5g of saturated fat per 100g
  • Low: ≤1.5g of saturated fat per 100g

Sugars

  • High: > 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
  • Low: ≤5g of total sugars per 100g

Salt

  • High: > 1.5g of salt per 100g
  • Low: ≤0.3g of salt per 100g

Nutrients you should get more of: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.

Dietary fibre can benefit the gut bacteria and improve bowel movements. Diets higher in Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, anaemia, and high blood pressure.

Calories

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a single serving or per 100g of the food. Your calorie needs vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. To achieve or maintain healthy body weight, balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses. Eating too many calories per day can lead to obesity.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV) or Average Daily Allowance ( RDA )

These values are determined by competent national authorities. The companies are required to reflect these contents based on laws governing packaged foods. The %DV or RDA are used interchangeably and show us how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a total daily diet. It can tell you if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.

In general,

  • -≤5% DV of a nutrient per serving is considered low
  • -≥20% DV of a nutrient per serving is considered high

You should choose foods that have:

  • Higher in %DV for Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium
  • Lower in %DV for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

Now that we understand the different components of a nutrition label, let’s have a look at the different terms that might end up misguiding us.

Deciphering the label teasers

Have you ever wondered what nutrition you are getting when you buy a ‘low-fat food’, multigrain bread or juice? Attractive terms like ‘natural’ or ‘zero additives’ can make you grab your fingers to buy those special so-called health foods. These terms can be confusing and often misleading.

Here’s a quick sneak peek at what the label teasers actually mean:

Sugars: Food labels can contain sugars hiding in plain sight without us noticing. You might have come across various terms such as high fructose corn syrup, inverted syrup, maltodextrins, ethyl maltol, fruit juice concentrates etc. These terms are different types or forms of sugars which are very capable of raising your blood sugar levels. People with diabetes, obesity, or any person trying to cut out sugars should watch out for these ingredients lurking in their food products.

Enriched, fortified, added: When your food product label shows terms like these, it means the nutrients that were lost or not present during processing have been added to the final product to make it more nutritious. When the label says enriched it means that the nutrition lost during processing has been added back, for example during the processing of wheat to make white flour, certain vitamins are lost, the exact same vitamins are added back to it to maintain its nutritional value. When the label says fortified, it means that the vitamins or nutrients that weren’t present in the food before processing have now been added to it in order to increase its nutritional value.

Fruit drink: This means there is a lot of sugar and no real fruit in the drink. Instead, look out for products saying ‘100% fruit juice’, even2 better if it is with ‘No sugar added’.

Made using wheat or multi-grains: This means these products are low on whole grain. If the product mentions ‘whole’ before grain, it means you are getting a product having 100% whole grain2.

Natural: Before processing the food, the manufacturer uses a natural resource but once processed, the food may resemble far from being natural. Check out for products that read ‘No preservatives’2.

Certified organically grown: Trust on the labels which read these and not ‘organically grown or pesticide-free’2.

Trickiest trans fats: When the nutrition label states ‘0g’ trans-fat but contains ‘partially hydrogenated oil in its list of ingredients, it means it contains trans fats in a quantity less than 0.5g in 1 serve. So, if you indulge in more than 1 serving, you might end up having more trans-fat.

The real secret to reading a food label correctly is to understand what to watch out for. Once you have decoded the label lingo, it shouldn’t be difficult to make healthy choices at all.

References:

How to Read a Food Label. Available from:
https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/how-to-read-food-labels.

How to read a nutrition label. Available from: How to read a nutrition label. Available from:
https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/how-read-nutrition-label?page=1/

Understanding food nutrition labels. Available from:
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/understanding-food-nutrition-labels

How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label Available at
https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label

Food labels – Eat well Available at
https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-read-food-labels