Food labelling can be misleading and confusing. The cyncial amongst us may feel that this is done deliberately by marketing people to make products sound healthier than they are. Here is a guide to help you make better and more informed decisions:
Tricky terminology- what does it actually mean?
“Healthy” A food or product that is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and contains at least 10% of the daily recommended values for vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein or fibre.
“High” A food that contains 20% or more of the daily value recommendations for a given nutrient.
“Less” a food or a product that contains at least 25% less of a given nutrient that the comparison food (for example light cream cheese compared to normal cream cheese)
“Low” an amount that will allow a frequent consumption of a food without exceeding the daily value for the nutrient (for example cauliflower is a low sodium food)
“Reduced calorie” at least 25% fewer calories than the comparison food
“Low calorie” 40 calories or less per serving of the food
“Reduced fat” 25% less fat than the comparable product or food
"Low fat" less than 3% fat per serving of the food
“lean” less than 10g of fat and less than 4.5g of saturated
"Use by" is displayed on foods that go off quickly such as fish, meat, dairy, fruit, veg and salads. You should not be using any food or drink after it has passed its use by date. You should also follow instructions such as “refrigerate after opening” and “eat within 3 days of opening”.
"Best before" dates appear on foods that tend to last longer, for example, frozen, tinned and dried foods. The best before dates are about quality- not safety. When you use it pass the best before date the food will not be harmful but it might have begin to lose its flavour or texture.
How to read nutritional information:
Always start at the top and check if the information is given per 100g or per serving size. If serving size is given, make sure you do not go over it if you want the information to be accurate. For example on the back of cereal boxes the serving size is given as 30g (which is just over a handful) and most people go over this easily.
Check how many calories is in the serving size. Keep in mind that the daily guideline for calories is very personal based on the energy expenditure but is roughly 1800-2000 calories for women and about 2500 for men.
Total Fat states the amount of all fats found in the food together. Most labels will break this down for saturated and unsaturated fats. Any food with a saturated fat level of above 3 grams is classed as high and should be consumed in moderation.
Total Carbohydrates tells you how much sugar the food contains. All carbohydrates (except for fibre and some alcohols) eventually get broken down You should be getting about 200 grams of carbohydrates per day if you are a woman or 250 grams if you are a man. However this is very individual and can vary based on activity levels and the rate of metabolism. Not all carbohydrates in the food are digestible by the human body.
Therefore when you see a label that says 20 grams of carbohydrates of which sugars - 15 grams, it means that 15 grams of that sugar will be digested by the body. All or part of the remainder is likely to be fibre or other form of sugar that can not be broken down by our digestive enzymes and therefore can not be converted to energy (ie. no calories!!).
Protein states simply how much there is of it in that particular food- you should be getting roughly 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of your bodyweight (so for example, somebody who weighs 60 kilograms should get about 60 grams of protein per day).
Other nutrients - some food labels will say how much of a certain vitamin or a mineral they contain. Sodium (salt) is a common one to state and the levels of this should be limited, especially those who have high blood pressure. If the food has been fortified (for example many cereals) the packing tends to claim this. Also if the food is particularly high in a certain nutrient (for example calcium in yogurt) the packing again tends to claim this.