Nutrition 101: How to Read a Food Label
Navigating a supermarket is stressful at the best of times. As consumers we are bombarded with options for every single product which makes decision making difficult, add in to the mix trying to decipher which is the healthiest option and you have a recipe for confusion. No one wants to spend hours in the grocery store analysing the label on every product just to know we are making a good choice, and we don't have to. Food labelling standards certainly do not make it simple to understand exactly what is in our food and what the nutritional value of it is. The labels are often based on us consuming a small, specific portion that is totally unrealistic to what we would actually eat and not many people are willing to stand there and do the maths to work it out! So in this blog post I am going to give you a few simple rules to help you quickly check a food label and then give you some product comparisons to help it make sense. Hopefully with these tips we can all spend less time worrying and more time cooking and enjoying our food!!
1. Avoid long, complicated ingredient lists!
This is possibly the simplest rule to follow - if the ingredient list on the back is full of different ingredients with words that you cannot pronounce, it probably isn't that good for you. Products like these tend to be filled with additives, preservatives and strange chemicals that don't need to be in your food. Look for labels with short lists with wholesome ingredients that you recognise.
2. Check for added sugars.
This is something I always look for in my foods. Sugars are added to so many food products unnecessarily, food companies do it to improve taste and to make you crave more of their food and we do not need it in our diet. Pasta sauces, yoghurt, salad dressings, sauces, bread, soups and cereal products are all massive offenders for this. Look for ingredients such as sugar, syrups, molasses, dextrose, cane juice, sucralose and fruit concentrates. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, stay away! For these foods, pick the options that have less or no added sugars - Heinz do a ketchup that has 50% less sugar and you seriously cannot taste the difference!
3. Avoid low fat products.
Low fat products were created when research back in the 60s showed that fat intake was associated with heart disease. After a lot more research we now understand that it is certain saturated fats that are particularly bad for us and that wholesome natural fats are actually good for us. Low fat products often tend to have way more added sugars and chemicals to make them taste nice as the fat is what makes these foods yummy! Now I am not saying to go and eat loads and loads of fatty foods, but eating full fat yoghurt, cheese and other dairy products has plenty of benefits!
4. Use the traffic light system.
In the UK, the traffic light system makes it easy to glance at a product and see if it is too high in certain nutrients. On the front it shows calories, fat, saturates, sugars and salt and labels them green, orange or red depending on how high the levels are. Look for mostly greens with the occasional orange and try to stay away from products with red unless it is a treat!
5. Pay attention to servings.
Oh that pack of milky bar buttons only has 109 kcal per serving! Except that bag has over 5 servings in it meaning if you ate the whole bag you would take in around 500 kcal and over 50g of sugar. Let's be honest we rarely stick to serving sizes so when looking at a label pay attention to how many servings are in the pack because food companies are sneaky and don't like to make this obvious. It may take some simple maths, but look at how may grams are in a serving and how many grams are in the bag and then assess the label.
Okay let's give this a go! Apologies for the hard to read images, but try having a quick look at each label and have a think about them before reading what I have written underneath!
ROUND 1: Granola bars
Granola bars vary wildly and this comparison shows that! The one on the left (which is labeled as a light diet bar!) has a long, wordy ingredient list and hopefully you spotted that it is full of sugar and sweeteners (dextrose, oligofructose syrup, glucose syrup, grape juice concentrate etc). While you may think that at 65 kcal and 4g of sugar it sounds great, one look at that label should send you running. The bar on the right is a great example of a much more natural option, such a lovely short ingredient list full of real foods. At 82 kcal and 6.8g of sugar - all of which is natural, this is a much healthier option.
ROUND 2: Bread
One good thing about bread in the UK is we rarely add sugar to it unlike some other countries, but there are still some key things to look out for. While both of these breads use a fortified wheat flour as their base, the one on the right is the winner by far. It contains extra grains, other wholegrain flours, no emulsifiers, no oils and no additives. It also is lower in calories but higher in fibre per slice - a winner!
ROUND 3: Granola
Granolas are another big offender, you may think of granola as a healthy food, but many are much worse than a sugary cereal. Our granola on the right has a lovely ingredient list with whole oats, nuts, seeds and a little syrup. Meanwhile the granola on the left is FULL of everything under the sun it would seem!! Count how many times you can read sugar on that list? It also has lots of wordy, artificial ingredients and has 19g of sugar per 100g compared to only 6.5g in our healthier option.
I hope this helps you navigate the supermarket a bit easier, when in doubt, shopping for the freshest, simplest foods often means you will make healthier choices. Remember it is all about balance though, if you fancy that bag of buttons one day, have them and enjoy them!