If you've ever stared in utter confusion at a food label while trying to decipher if it's a healthy choice – you're not alone! Recent consumer research highlights that around 79% of consumers find nutrition labels confusing and many also believe this leads to them making poorer food choices. To help you with what to look out for, here's my 5 point crash course of label reading!
The traffic lights on the front of UK packaging can be helpful to see at a glance if something is high in sat fat or salt for example. Chances are if you're seeing lots of reds but not many greens, then the product is potentially not the healthiest choice. That said, it's important to consider the type of product you're looking. For example, a large salmon fillet would show red in the 'Fat' section, because it's naturally high in 'good' fats – but it certainly wouldn't be an unhealthy choice. Similarly fruit based products may show as high in sugar, but fruit based sugars are not the type we're overly concerned with.
This can be useful to see exactly how much of each nutrient is in a portion and often, these labels compare the amounts to recommended daily intakes too, which can be useful. Be careful to look at what each column represents though – some will be for 100g and some will be for a portion. Make sure you're looking at the most relevant numbers and also be aware of what a portion is. Some products are cleverly marketed to look like they serve one and so you think you're getting a great calorie deal – until you look closer and realise you should have only eaten half of the pack!
The most important thing to note when reading the ingredients panel is that foods are listed in descending order, with the biggest contributor first. This is helpful when trying to check how much sugar, oil or salt has been added for example – the higher up the ingredients list, the larger the contribution. If sugar appears within the first 3 or 4 ingredients for example, it's likely the product contains quite a lot of added sugar and may not be the healthiest choice.
Remember also, that sugar comes in many forms and will not always be described as 'sugar' in the listing. Look also for syrups, molasses, caramel, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, fructose, honey, jaggery, palm sugar, treacle for example.
There are labelling laws in the UK which ensure manufacturers can't use terms such as 'low fat', 'fat free' or 'no added sugars' unless the product meets specific nutrition criteria. But that said, it's important to understand what these claims mean – and equally what they don't. If a product is marketed as 'reduced fat' this doesn't mean 'low fat'. Reduced fat simply means it contains 30% less fat than the similar equivalent – but both could technically still be high in fat. 'Low fat' however has to meet a certain level per 100g – no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solid products.
Another consideration is that 'low fat' doesn't automatically mean 'healthy'. Some products are very low fat but then contain lots more added sugar to boost the flavour. Also just because a product is 'all natural' doesn't mean it is automatically diet friendly – some natural products can still be very high in calories, so make sure you check this.
A useful way to make nutrition labels work in your favour is to compare similar products to help you make a better choice. So check levels of sat fat, sugar and salt and also the ingredients list, and opt for the product that's lower in these unhealthy nutrients. For example, let's say you are buying peanut butter – one brand appears to be all natural and claims 'No added sugar' – which sounds like a good choice right? But on closer inspection, you can see from the ingredients list that it contains added palm oil and salt – two pretty undesirable ingredients. Whereas the supermarket own brand peanut butter says it's 100% nuts, and the ingredients list confirms that all it contains is peanuts – great, that's your winner!
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.