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Food Labels Decoded: Making Informed Choices for a Healthy Diet

Updated: Aug 25, 2023


Nutrition table on 330ml can of coca cola

Labels provide us with useful information about what packaged food contains, but they can often 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 and health coach, 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?


Table of Recommended daily calorie intake for women and men
Recommended daily calorie intake for women and men

Hidden Starches

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.


Learn to understand the information presented in the ingredients tables. For example – 10g sugar might not seem excessive, but as per the table below, 10g sugar per 100g of product is a lot. 2g per 100g product is much lower. This is similar for liquids. For instance a 330ml of coca cola contains 10.6g of sugar per 100ml, which is 35g in total, more than 100% of your daily recommended (sugar) allowance for both women and men.


Table diagram of high and low amounts of sugar, salt and sodium on food labels
Understanding the numbers and weights on food labels aids informed decision making

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


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?


Ultra processed foods usually contain lots of ingredients. Choose products with less ingredients with no additives or preservatives.


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, think of crisps, a bar of chocolate or biscuits. 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. Sneaky!


Top 10 ingredients to watch for


This isn’t an exhaustive list but it is a good starting point if you want to know that you are eating as well as you can for your health.


Bottom line: if you can't pronounce the ingredient, it's probably not something you want to put into your body! And if you don't recognise something as 'food', chances are your body won't either.


1 Artificial dyes & brighteners

Blue 1, Caramel colour, Red 3 (Erythrosine), Red 40, Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5 (Tartrazine), Yellow 6.


2 Artificial flavours & enhancers

Autolysed yeast extract, hydrolysed protein, monosodium glutamate (MSG), “natural flavours.”


3 Artificial sweeteners

Aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin are some of the main ones.

Ingredient label from Oreo cookies
Learn to recognize sugar substitutes to avoid misleading "low sugar" claims on products

4 Sugars

There are many names for sugar, including glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, honey, treacle, agave, fruit juice, lactose, isoglucose, dates, dried fruit, raisins/sultanas, grape concentrate.


5 Bleached flours

Or other processed flours.

Ingredients and nutrition label from Tesco tortilla chips
Refined oils are often considered less healthy compared to unrefined or minimally processed oils due to the way they are processed

6 Refined & processed oils

Rapeseed (aka canola) unless cold pressed, corn, partially hydrogenated oils, vegetable oils.


7 Preservatives

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), calcium propionate, propylparaben, methylparaben, propyl gallate, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate, TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone).


8 Thickeners & emulsifiers

Carrageenan, lecithin, gellan gum, cellulose gum, guar gum, monoglycerides, diglycerides.


9 Dough conditioners

Azodicarbonamide, calcium peroxide, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides).


10 Processed food supplements

Soy protein isolate is a common highly-processed genetically modified protein supplement in many "healthy" or diet foods.


Why are these foods unhealthy for us?

These foods don't benefit our health in any way. They contain little or no nutrients. The foods that contain these ingredients get absorbed quickly in the upper part of our gut and rapidly enter the bloodstream as fats and sugars producing sugar peaks and dips and increasing fats in the blood. When confronted with this on a regular basis the body finds it hard to deal with. These foods certainly lead to overeating and inflammation. These chemicals upset our gut microbes causing them to produce abnormal chemicals which confuse our metabolism and can predispose us to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Think about it.... when is the last time that you couldn't stop eating cauliflower, apples or a normal meal of say, chicken, rice and vegetables. We don't tend to overeat these foods. Then think about Pringles (once you pop you can't stop!) for example or chocolate chip cookies, as you will know it's very difficult to just have a few Pringles and to stop at 1 or even 2 cookies.


Making sense of food labels


‘Fat’ Food Labels Trans Fats

Avoid anything on a food label that says ‘hydrogenated’– including ‘partially hydrogenated’. These are trans fats, and damaged fats, which are unhealthy. They're often found in cakes and biscuits to prolong their life or enhance the mouth feel.


Low Fat

Items with no more than 3g fat per 100g may be labelled ‘low fat’. Reducing the fat content, of foods dramatically reduces their calorie content, because fat has 9kcal/g, whereas carbohydrates have only 4kcal/g.


Removing fat from foods affects their flavour and texture, which is usually remedied by adding sugar. Result: a lower-calorie product but with a higher GL than the original. This is not a good thing.


Additives

Such as colourings, flavourings, preservatives, thickeners, etc. Additives deemed safe by the EU are given an E number. However, they can have effects in some people. For example E155 can trigger asthma in some. In general, reducing your additive intake is a good thing and you can do this by eating less processed food and more whole organic foods.


Calories & Macros


The problem with calories

It’s not that calories don’t matter at all but they matter much less than we have been led to believe. Metabolism is much too complex to be reduced to the simple calorie equation of “calories in < calories out = weight loss” and “calories in > calories out = weight gain”. This simplistic approach dismisses the metabolic effects foods have once we have eaten them, suggesting that the result of ingesting 150 kcal from a fizzy drink has the same effect on your weight as 150 kcal from raw almonds, but this is simply not the case.


Nutrition table from food label showing levels of calories and nutrients
Calories in & calories out approach to weight loss dismisses the metabolic effect of food on our bodies

How many calories are in a single serving – or in the amount you plan to eat?

Why it matters: While calories aren’t “bad” or “good,” it’s a good idea to know the number.


That way, you'll have an idea what proportion of your overall daily fuel intake the food represents, especially when it’s a processed food (which often contain more calories and fewer healthy micronutrients).


Mind your macros: Note the proportion of fats/carbs/protein you're taking in, so that you are eating in alignment with your goals.



About Serving Sizes


Will you eat more, less or the same amount as the recommended serving size?

Bowl of cornflakes with milk and blueberries
Most people pour more breakfast cereal into their bowl than the recommended 30g serving size

It's also helpful to look at the number of servings in the package. You might be surprised by what the manufacturer suggests!


Why it matters: The suggested serving size is the amount of food represented in the nutritional breakdown.


This is important because it's easy to eat more than the suggested serving size without ever realising it – especially when it comes to ultra- processed foods. Breakfast cereal is a good example. The packet might say a serving is 30g but who eats that amount? The reality is that most people - even children - would pour more into their bowl.


As a result, you could be unknowingly taking in a LOT more of whatever you are checking for than you anticipated.


FIBRE


Why it matters: Many people don't eat enough fibre and this can result in big repercussions for health. Fibre slows down the speed at which sugars land in your bloodstream, helping to keep glucose levels balanced. Fibre helps with digestion. Fibre can be soluble or insoluble (the distinction is not made on food labels) and can feed the good bacteria in the gut as well as keep you regular. If you're following a diet where "net carbs" matter, these aren't always listed on labels but you can work this out for yourself using the following formula: total carbohydrates in grammes minus fibre in grammes equals net carbs in grammes.


In conclusion, comprehending food labels is crucial for making informed dietary choices. By carefully examining ingredients, understanding nutritional values, and being mindful of portion sizes, we can achieve a healthier and more balanced approach to nutrition. Remember, the key lies in deciphering the perplexing information presented on food labels and making choices that align with our health goals.


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