Making sense of food labels
Labels provide us with useful information about what packaged food contains they can be confusing (not to mention misleading). Remember the labels are also there to help sell the product - so you need to look more closely if you really want to understand what you are eating.
What should we eat?
As a nutritional therapist, when I'm working with my clients, we are looking at the science of what to eat to achieve their specific health goal but just as important is how much you eat (as well as why and how, but that's another story).
It's very easy to accidentally find yourself eating either too much or too little. So what does the 'average' person need to eat in terms of energy every day?
Calories: 2000 kcals
Sugar: 25g or 6tsp
Calories: 2500 kcals
Sugar: 31g or 8tsp
When buying starchy foods like bread, rice, and pasta, look for wholegrain/ whole wheat / wholemeal varieties. Avoid any form of sugar, white or refined foods and look out for hidden starches in the ingredients list such as potato starch, corn starch, and rice starch – all of these will be broken down into sugar by the body. Your body cannot tell the difference between these starches and real sugar.
PER 100G A Lot A Little
Sugars 10g 2g
Salt 125g 0.25g
Sodium 0.5g 0.1g
Be label savvy
When you see a claim like “No added sugar” or “30% less sugar”, look closer at the label. The manufacturer will want the low-sugar version to match the taste of the original as closely as possible. A famous trick is to add maltodextrin – a polysaccharide and therefore technically a starch, not a sugar. However, it is still broken down into sugar very quickly and will impact your blood sugar levels, which is important for all aspects of health.
When you see “50% fewer calories”, again, read the label. The product will be lower in fat than the original but, for this to be true, it must be higher in carbohydrates. For example, a packet of crisps – made of fried potato slices and salt – is not a healthy food and is high in calories. A packet of ‘healthy’ crisps right next to it may be lower in calories and ‘baked’ but could well contain potato starch, maize starch, rice starch and maltodextrin. Is that a healthy crisp? No.
Ingredients are listed by the order of weight.
The ingredient used the MOST is listed first,
and the ingredient used the LEAST is listed last!
How many ingredients does it contain?
WHY IT MATTERS: Foods with many ingredients are often highly processed (“ultra-processed”).
Processed foods are often less nutritious and are designed to be "highly palatable" ... which means you’re likely to eat more of them in one sitting, and also more frequently. This can translate into eating more calories with less nutrition value.
Do you KNOW WHAT each ingredient IS?
WHY IT MATTERS: Many times, unhealthy fats (like hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) and added sugars can sneak into your food under different names.
Manufacturers know people get (on a conceptual level at least) they should eat less sugar, so they work hard to call that sugar by another name to fool you into thinking their product is healthy. Tricky, right?
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