It is not always possible to tell how nutritious a food is by its appearance. Looking at food labels can guide you to make better food choices.
The panel on the label of most foods and drinks provides useful information about their nutrition content. Amounts are given per 100g of food and may also be provided per serving of the product. Some labels give even more information, for example different types of fat, dietary fibre and sodium.
Look at the fat, sugar and calorie content per 100g. How do they compare to the guidelines in the table below? Aim for more products that fall into the ‘a little’ category, and eat products that fall into the ‘a lot’ category sparingly. Except for fibre, where more is better.
includes both sugars and starches. The figure given for sugars includes both added sugar and natural sugar (e.g sugar in fruit). If “sugar” is listed in the ingredients, this is white refined sugar. If total sugars are high, but sugar is not listed as an ingredient, it may be from fruit content. Starches are much larger, more complex molecules of the same chemicals as sugar, and take longer to digest. Look for low sugars content, rather than low total carbohydrate.
There are 3 main types of fats listed on food labels; saturates, polyunsaturates and mono-unsaturates. The label will show the total amount of fat, and may provide information on the different types as well. It’s best to avoid products where saturated fat is the main fat content. Hydrogenated fat should always be avoided.
Also check the ingredients list. The first ingredient on the list is present in the greatest amounts and the last ingredient in present in the smallest amounts. If a food contains lots of strange ingredients with chemical names, look for another option. If fatty ingredients or sugars are fourth in the list or lower, the product is likely to be a lower fat/low sugar option.
What about health claims?
Nutritional food claims can be misleading. ‘Light’, ‘diet’ or ‘reduced fat’ food may have less fat than a similar product but they can still be very high in calories, fat or sugar. You need to read the nutrition label to find out the details.
For example, ‘low fat’ crisps, biscuits, cakes and sausages can still be high in fat, sugar or both. So while they may have less fat than normal products, they are still high fat foods – use them sparingly.
Many supermarkets have ‘healthy eating’ ranges. These may have reduced levels of fat, sugar, salt or calories, but different places will use different criteria. Even for these products, it is worth checking the label to make sure you’re actually making a healthy choice as fat is often replaced with higher sugar.