8 Tips for Understanding Food Labelling

Are you confused about food labels and what the information means on the labels?  Dr Muireann Cullen from the Nutrition and Health Foundation gives some tips for parents for when you are reading food labels.

Laws regarding food labelling practices have been developing drastically over the last couple years.  What many of us do not know, is what different labelling terms really mean, and how to properly read food labels.

Traditionally, the regulation of food-labelling practices has been essential for those who may need to limit their intake of fats, carbohydrates, or salt as well as the avoidance of allergens.  With the increasing prevalence of obesity, it is becoming more and more important to make healthy, educated choices when it comes to buying food.

When you are faced with making choices between two different foods, there are some important things you should know before reaching for one or the other. It is important to become familiar with food labels, and what they can really tell you.

What does “light” or “low fat” mean?

Products advertised as “light” or “low fat” are becoming easier to find now a days. However, check the label as even if a food is low in fat or sugar, the food may not necessarily be low in calories. These specific terms or claims are defined by law, and allow for consistency between products. Those that are labelled low fat, for example, must have no more than 3g of fat per 100g of solids (or 1.5g per 100 mL).

Front of pack nutrition labelling

Foods with no added sugars must not contain any added simple sugars used for sweetening purposes, but the food may often contain natural sugars found in the food itself. It is important to recognise these labels and know what they mean and to understand the contents of an ingredient label and nutrition panel as well.

In more recent years, the food and drink industry has introduced front of pack nutrition labelling to give you a quick glance at the important information regarding calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt as well as the percentage of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) for each. The recent addition of front of pack labelling also allows you to compare items without even needing to turn it over to read the nutrition label.

Related: Eats, Treats and Labels

How do I pick the best or healthiest product?

There is no best method that applies to picking the best or healthiest product. One may have a lower calorie count, but what if it has a higher salt or fat content than another? Often, the ingredient label will reveal a great deal about the product. Choosing which product to buy based on these comparisons should go beyond the nutrition information.

Tips to remember

Some important and easy tips from the NHF to remember when it comes to food labels include:

#1. Familiarise yourself with the label: Take a couple of seconds to familiarise yourself with the label on the product you are buying.

#2. Check the list of the product’s ingredients: This listing is a legal requirement and tells you what is used to make the product. The ingredients are listed in descending order, so the ingredient that was used in the greatest amount will appear first on the list.

#3. Check both the ingredients and the nutritional information: When buying packaged foods, the ingredient list, as well as the nutritional information gives you an overall picture of what is in the food you are buying and how healthy it is for you.

#4. Pay close attention to serving size and to the number of servings per container: These are often overlooked, but are very important when choosing and eating foods for healthy living. Two products may have similar nutritional content but one package can contain double the number of servings.

#5. Compare products: If you want to know whether or not a food is high or low in a particular nutrient or want to compare the nutrient content of similar foods, then check out the nutrient content per 100g or per 100ml which provides a good basis for comparison between two products. This will help you decide on the healthier choice.

#6. Check the calories: Calories do count and checking whether they come from fats, sugars or proteins is very important, too.  Once in a while, it is a good idea to count all the calories you eat in a day. This is fairly easy to do just by adding up the calories per serving listed on the nutrition facts labels for all the foods consumed during the day.

#7. Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus: This means additional nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre have been added to the product.

#8. Be aware of your salt intake: Irish adults are advised not to eat more than 6g salt/day. So if you see, a sodium value on a label, multiply that number by 2.5 to get your salt intake e.g. 0.4g sodium = 1g salt.

The Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF) provides information on diet and exercise for the promotion of a healthy Ireland.  Their mission is to communicate evidence based information on nutrition, health and physical activity to encourage an improved and healthier society in Ireland.

Do you find food labels and nutritional information easy to understand?  Share your thoughts in the comments box below

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Jill is one of the co-founders of Mykidstime and a mum of 2 girls