How to Read Food Labels
Have you ever wondered how to read and understand the food labels?
Food labels are meant to be helpful—one look and you should instantly be able to tell if an item is nutritious or not. But all too often, they’re more confusing than clear.
We can have the best intention to buy healthy food products, but it can be very hard to tell what is nourishing and what should be avoided. Once you know what to look for navigating food labels can be a quick, easy and empowering skill. What to look for:
Ingredients List: when checking a product, the first step is to turn over to the ingredients list (what it is made from). In Australia ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight (the ingredient that makes up most of the product will be listed first and the last ingredient listed means it contains the smallest amount of that ingredient). More often than not the more nourishing products will have fewer ingredients and be simple things you can recognise and might already have in your pantry. When reading an ingredients list, if something is unclear, confusing and has laboratory made looking unfamiliar words that’s generally a good indication to not buy or consume it. A desirable product is based on whole, real food and avoids the inclusion of synthetic additives, preservatives, poor quality oils and high amounts of sugar in multiple (and under various names).
Sugar: If sugar (or another name/form of sugar) is listed as the first or second ingredient you know the product is mostly made up of sugar. Another trick to spot high sugar products is different names and types of sugar in smaller amounts which add up overall when combined. Other names for sugar on ingredients lists: syrups, fruit juice concentrates, words ending in “-ose”, maltodextrin, honey, molasses, malt, crystals, ethyl maltol, sucanat, agave nectar, buttercream, caramel and treacle. 4 grams = 1 teaspoon (eg a product containing 16 grams of sugar equals 4 teaspoons). The World Health Organisation recommends adults to have no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day (25 grams).
Nutrition Labels: When comparing options, be aware of the ‘serving size’ as this changes across different brands and it may not actually be what you would consider a standard serving size. Using the quantity per 100mL or per 100g column to compare products is more accurate.
Food Allergies: Products containing major allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, sesame, soybeans and gluten are labelled 'may contain…'. Legally companies have to include this whether their products contain any of the ingredients or not if they are processed in a factory that also handles them (even if the machinery is wiped down between uses). If you have a strong allergy to any of these foods or food components, it is recommended to avoid foods containing these ingredients.
Certified Organic: These products have passed stringent tests to ensure the ingredients have been grown and produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides, no genetically modified ingredients and for animal products no growth hormones.
Organic certification differences:
- 100% certified organic: label can state “100% organic” and can have a certification logo. 95%-100% certified organic: label can state “certified organic” and have the logo
- 70%-95% certified organic: label can state “made with certified organic ingredients”, cannot use logo
- Less than 70% certified organic: cannot make any certification claims, can only list ingredients as ‘organic’.
Examples of claims and ingredients to be mindful of:
- the front of product packaging is pure marketing. Claims of “healthy”, “fat free”, “sugar free”, “100% natural”, “made with real fruit” ect. These claims can easily distract from the overall quality of the ingredients (why the ingredients list is the most important information).
- artificial colours
- artificial flavours
- artificial sweeteners (this may be listed as the name of the specific sweetener used or as its corresponding number mostly in the range of 950-962)
- synthetic preservatives (numbers in the 200 range)
- synthetic emulsifiers (such as numbers 433 and 466)
- MSG (number 621), yeast extract, hydrolysed wheat/vegetable protein
- highly processed soy or soy derivatives (such as soy protein isolates)
- GMO ingredients
- vegetable oils (such as rapeseed, safflower, soybean, sunflower, canola, grapeseed and cottonseed)
- added sugars or non-nutritive sweeteners
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.
Integrative Nutrition Health Coach