Food Labels

If you want to improve your diet, lose weight or ensure that you’re eating healthily, it’s crucial that you take the time to check the information on food packaging.

Food labels should inform you of nutritional content such as calories, sodium, fat, fibre, sugar and carbohydrate content per 100g and per serving size; advise of any ingredients that might affect people with allergies; best by or use by dates and, how to store and cook the food safely. Then there’s the information that isn’t essential, but is there to influence consumers to buy, such as ‘low fat’, ‘high fibre’, ‘sugar-free’, ‘farmhouse fresh’ or ‘finest’.  

Reading the ingredients list will help to give you a feel for whether a product is high in a certain ingredient such as fat, salt or sugar, as they always start with the largest ingredient first.

To cause confusion to shoppers there are two different food labelling systems – the Traffic Light and the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA).

Traffic Light
Sainsbury, Asda, Waitrose, the Co-operative and Marks & Spencer have all opted for traffic-light labels.  Red (high), amber (medium) and green (low) are used to indicate at-a-glance grams of fat, salt and sugar in a product.

GDA (Guideline Daily Amounts)
The GDA system is supported by Tesco, Somerfield and Morrison supermarkets. The GDA label shows the number of calories, grams of sugar, fat, saturates (saturated fat) and salt per portion of food, and expresses these quantities as a percentage of your Guideline Daily Amount. These are based on the recommendations for an average adult of healthy weight and average activity level. Of course, individual requirements for energy and nutrition are different for all people, so GDAs are not seen as targets, but guidelines to help make healthy dietary choices.

Health Claims
Where food labelling is less clear is in the area of health claims and nutritional information. Any claims made about the health and nutritional benefits of a food, such as 'healthy', ‘super food’ or 'good for you' are only allowed to be used if accompanied by an appropriate and approved claim.

For instance, for food manufacturers to state that a product is 'lite' or 'light' in fat, they must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much. The easiest way to compare products is to look at the information per 100g. You may be surprised at how little difference there is between foods that carry claims and those that don't. Those tempting biscuits that claim to be light on fat can have more calories than you think. So always check the label!

Sugar and Sweeteners
If you are keeping a check on your weight, be aware because sugar can be hard to spot. Watch out for other words used to describe added sugars - such as sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey!

Also check for the addition of sweeteners - sorbitol, zylitol and mannitol (have almost as many calories as sugar), and aspartame, acesulphame K and saccharin (have virtually no calories).

If a product claims to have 'no added sugar' it means that the food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient, but it might still taste sweet. Whereas a food that claims to be 'unsweetened' means that no sugar or sweetener has been added to the food to make it taste sweet, although this doesn't necessarily mean that the food will not contain naturally occurring sugars found in fruit or milk.

E numbers are used to replace the natural colour lost during food processing or storage, or to make products a more consistent colour. Both ‘natural’ and synthetic food colourings have designated E numbers, and all have to be proved ‘safe, effective and necessary’ before they are used. Sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104) and tartrazine (E102) have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Note that these colours are often used in soft drinks, sweets and ice cream!

Flavour enhancers are also used to bring out the flavour in a wide range of savoury and sweet foods without adding a flavour of their own. For example monosodium glutamate, known as MSG, is added to many processed foods, especially soups, sauces, sausages, curries and Chinese food.

Emulsifiers are sometimes added to prevent water and oil separating in a food product and glazing agents give a shiny appearance to the surface of food, such as chocolate.
Stabilisers and thickeners improve the texture, creaminess or consistency of a food, or may make food seem more substantial than it is, and polyphosphate is added to some hams and frozen meals to help them hold water. All sounds very appetising!

Useful Info
Food labelling does have its plus points. At least we benefit from good information on how to store and cook foods, and when to eat them by. The 'best before' dates are more about quality than safety (except for eggs). So when the date runs out it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. ‘Use by' dates are found on food that goes off quickly, such as fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads.  Don't use any food or drink after the end of the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it after this date could put your health at risk.

So, before you next go shopping, wise up on food labels and learn to spot the good, the bad and the ugly!

Energy describes the total amount of calories per 100g and more importantly the total number of calories per serving. This is an important point because food labels quote the calorie total per 100g but may actually contain more - maybe two, three or four times that much. Consequently you will need to multiply the 100g total by the amount of grams you will be eating. Low calorie means no more than 40 calories per normal serving.

What are kcal and kJ?
Kcal relates to calorie (kilocalorie) and is the amount of energy that the food will give you when you eat it. The other measurement you will see on a label is kilojoules (kJ) which is the official measure used in the European Union. One kilocalorie equals 4.2 kilojoules.

Protein is essential for body growth and tissue repair. You won’t need to scrutinise the amount on food labels unless you are shopping for a strict vegetarian or an athlete.

There are two types of carbohydrates - simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates include added sugars and also natural sugars found in fruit and milk. Complex carbohydrates are also called starchy foods, which includes bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes. Sometimes you will only see a total figure for carbohydrates, which includes both starchy foods and sugars.

Look for the 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)' figure in the nutrition information panel of the food label. Low sugar means no more than 5g (1 teaspoon) in a normal serving.

There are two types of fat to look out for - saturated (bad fat) and unsaturated (good fat - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). Look out for the figure for ‘saturates’ or ‘sat fat’ on the label as eating a diet that is high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood. Low fat means less than 5g in a normal serving.

Adults are advised to eat no more than 6g (1 teaspoon) of salt (2.5g sodium) a day, however 75% of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy. Sometimes labels only show a figure for sodium, so to work out how much salt is present, multiply the sodium figure by 2.5. Low salt means no more than 40mg in a normal serving.

Fibre is important for a healthy digestive system and regular bowel movement. Check the label to ensure the food naturally contains it rather than from added bran or other refined fibre.