We’ve all seen them. You’ve probably read one or two. People tell you to read them, but let’s be honest; what are we looking for exactly? You might be already reading your labels. Here’s the question. Are you reading them correctly? That’s right, it’s not enough to just glance at your food labels, you need to read and understand the information.
There’s a lot more to food labels then energy, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Many so-called, “healthy” foods can have some pretty terrible ingredients. You need to be informed to know what to look for. And if you have food allergies, then it’s even more important to make sure you’re reading all of your food labels correctly.
The first part of every food label is the Nutrition Information box. The first information you’ll find is serving size and servings per package. Many products will claim 300 calories per serve, and you can mistakenly assume that means the entire package. Instead of assuming, look at how many servings are in the package and then decide how many calories (or kJ) are actually per serve.
You should also pay attention to the total fat vs. saturated fat. You’re looking for a 3g per 100g ratio or lower. Choose foods with less than 10g of fat per 100g of serve. While you're there, look at the sodium. You should have less than 400mg of salt per 100g (120mg salt per 100g is best).
The ingredients are where things can get complicated. All ingredients are listed on the label in order of largest to smaller by weight. This can help you spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt, or added sugars because of the top three ingredients. However, the order isn’t always your best guide.
Let’s say you’re looking at a cake and the first ingredient is flour, you might think, “wow, that’s great.” The truth is, the first ingredient is actually sugar when you add up all of the ingredients that are sugar by another name. Remember sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose, and juice-concentrate are all other names for sugar.
There are three simple ingredients you should always look out for: sugar, salt, and fat. When looking at your food labels see if you can find any of these terms and then add up how many different terms appear to discover the true ratio.
- Sugar: sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, lactose, molasses, syrup, malt extract, raw sugar, brown sugar, modified carbohydrate
- Salt: sodium, rock salt, onion salt, celery salt, garlic salt, vegetable salt, MSG, yeast extracts, booster, stock, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate
- Fat: Oil, shortening, tallow, lard, dripping, cream, copha, milk solids, monoglycerides, diglycerides, butter, margarine
Many foods make bold claims: Fat Free, Light, No Added Sugar, High Fibre, etc. What do these actually mean?
- Low Fat: 3g of fat or less per 100g
- Fat Free: 0.15g fat or less per 100g
- No Added Sugar: this food has no ‘added’ sugar but may still be high in sugar so check your label
- No Added Salt: this food has no ‘added’ salt but may still be high in salt
- Salt Reduced: 25% less salt than a similar product
- Low Salt or Low Sodium: less than 120mg sodium per 100g
- High Fibre: more than 3g of fibre per 100g
When it comes to your food labels, don’t be fooled. Never take the word of a claim. Instead, trust what you read on the label and make the best choices you can from there.