Eats, treats and labels: how to read a nutrition label

Giving kids a lunch box item, a quick snack or a treat and keeping it healthy can be easier said than done.  In this article, Bridget Wing, Nutritional Therapist explains how to read a nutrition label and how to identify how much salt and sugar and fat are contained in kids snacks.


First you have to get over the advertising, then through the attractive packaging designs and then past the helpful slogans/comments e.g. “no added sugar”, “contains REAL fruit juice” and so to the ingredients list on the back, (or on the outer packet or under a flap!).

But beware – all that glitters is not gold:

  • No added sugar = no added fructose. This does not mean there are not other sugars included – these are listed later in this article
  • Contains real fruit juice = often highly concentrated sugar-rich fruit concentrates or miniscule amounts of fruit, plus look closely at other not-real ingredients
  • Fat free = often very high in sugar to compensate
  • 100% natural = anything that has been derived from plant (or element or planet earth) but can have been processed (that is chemically or structurally altered) into something detrimental to health.

It is important to ALWAYS read the ingredients regardless of the claims.

Chemical additives

These additives include artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives, and are possibly the easiest to figure out as they are most often either E numbers or chemical names. Sweeteners are listed by name, the most common of which are aspartame, acesulfane K, saccharin, sucralose, stevia.

The ingredients to really keep an eye on then are sugars, fats and salt. The quantities of these added into products is overwhelming and sometimes well hidden. It is helpful to bear in mind that manufacturers need to create revenue and do not have concerns for the welfare of your children.


This will be listed as salt, sodium, sodium phosphate, natural salt, sea salt and keep limits at no more than 5-6g (2-2.4g sodium) per day. This amount is for adults so less for children.

Remember, this includes any salts added into all food items including home cooking.  Be aware too that most processed foods are extremely high in salt. Low salt food is 0.3g (0.12g sodium) per 100g.


These are easy to spot as will be listed as butter, trans fat, hydrogenated or non-hydrogented, or as an oil (of which there are many varieties including olive, canola, rapeseed, sunflower ).

The fats to avoid are trans and hydrogenated fats. Be aware too that ‘vegetable oil’ is a cover for any oil of mixed source and often low grade – if one of these is hydrogenated then it should say so but different countries will have different laws.  Low fat is less than 3% (3g per 100g).


Sometimes this will be listed as simply sugar, but most often it is accompanied by other sugars in disguise or in different guise, all which the body treats the same (i.e.: hyperactivity, obesity, fatigue, insulin resistance, diabetes..)

Sucrose, fructose, lactose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, sugar, raw cane sugar, granulated sugar, natural sugar, invert sugar syrup, invert syrup, dehydrated cane juice, syrup, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, rice syrup, barley malt extract, honey, agave nectar, molasses, treacle.

Looking at nutritional values, be aware that if the ‘of which sugars’ value under ‘carbohydrates’ is, for example, 20g per 100g then 20% of that product is sugar. Keep added sugar consumption to a minimum – there is no need to set a daily minimum or maximum amount, kids gets sufficient energy from natural sugars (especially fruit and milk) and other carbohydrate intake.

Hidden Ingredients

Some foodstuffs (see list below) that we may perceive as healthy are often full of hidden unwanted ingredients, sometimes in high amounts, so read labels carefully and have fun checking:

  • Granola and cereal bars
  • Tinned fruits, vegetables and soups
  • Bread
  • Pasta sauces
  • Ready meals
  • Mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressings
  • Yoghurts
  • Fromage frais
  • Cultured yoghurt drinks
  • Jellies
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Savoury snacks, crackers, crisps, salted nuts
  • Low fat products
  • Biscuits especially filled biscuits
  • Chinese restaurant food
  • Smoked fish
  • Cured meats

Article written by Bridget Wing, Nutritional Therapist.  You can contact Bridget:

Mob: 087 9705151
Tel:   091 388684

Do you find it easy or difficult to read labels and understand the nutritional content?  Tell us about it in the comments below.

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This website was created by Jill Holtz and Michelle Davitt, both of whom are mothers of young children. Jill and Michelle decided to create this resource themselves, and launched in 2007.