In more recent years the guidelines surrounding food labelling have tightened, food manufacturers are permitted to bear all with their ingredients and their nutritional information. Whilst it’s great that the ‘hidden ingredients’ can no longer be hidden it’s essential that we understand what to look out for when buying a food product. After all it isn’t quite as simple as the lower the numbers the better.
A food product will always list the ingredients which are stated in weight order, for example if sugar is in the first few ingredients you know it makes up a considerable amount of the product. Be aware when a product says ‘natural flavourings’ this could literally mean anything! I’m not suggesting you never touch these foods but just know that they most likely aren’t referring to kale extract.
The next important factor when reading labels is the nutritional information. Firstly always check whether the product is based on a serving size (if so check what that is, as you’ll most likely have three times that) or on 100g, often they’ll have both.
The first component of the nutritional information table is the calories. A calorie is simply a unit of energy and whilst counting calories has been a thing for decades (which will most likely never go away) it is not the most important factor. I’m not suggesting you count calories but be sensible in your decisions – for example the recommendations for a female is around 1800kcal and a male 2200kcal a day so if you’re eating a 700kcal snack, that’s a considerable amount of your daily recommendation.
The next macronutrient you’ll see is the fat content. Typically this is the driver and decider whether or not you buy the product. Although it really should not be. When a product is made into a low fat version it is often much higher in sugar (they have to replace the taste somehow). Healthy fats are required as part of a healthy balanced diet. They play roles in brain functioning, joint lubrication and the metabolism of fat soluble nutrients. Research has suggested that olive oil has shown to increase longevity and improve heart health. Foods such as nuts, olives, oily fish, hummus and avocados would typically be colour coded red in the fat department. However, these foods are actually good for you. They’re rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which are essential for health.
Under the fats you’ll notice the saturated fats which is labelled ‘of which saturates’. You should be more concerned about these in general although there are a few exceptions (coconut being one of them). Ideally chose options which are at least marked as yellow but aim for green. Saturated fats have been associated with increased risk of high cholesterol and increased cardiovascular disease risk.
Next on the list is carbohydrates. Whilst carbohydrates are essential for energy metabolism its crucial that we get them from reputable sources. Research has suggested that individuals who consume complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) over simple carbohydrates (refined grains and added sugars) have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Consequently it is the next line ‘Of which sugars’ which should be of greater concern. The recommended daily allowance for female sugar intake is 30g and 35g for males. One cereal bar could contain half your daily allowance of sugar.
The final two components which should be of interest to you are the protein and the fibre. Both of these components keep you fuller for longer and slow the release of carbohydrates into the blood stream which means your blood sugar levels remain more stable throughout the day. Protein is also essential for cell structure, muscle growth and repair. Finally, fibre helps to promote gut health and bowel function. The recommendation is 30g of fibre a day.
Evidently, there is more to reading labels than simply looking at the colours. In summary and as a general guide stick to greens and yellows for saturated fats and‘of which sugars’ and opt for higher intakes of fibre and protein.
Buckland, G., & Gonzalez, C. A. (2015). The role of olive oil in disease prevention: a focus on the recent epidemiological evidence from cohort studies and dietary intervention trials. British Journal of Nutrition, 113(S2), S94-S101.
Schwingshackl, L., & Hoffmann, G. (2014). Monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lipids in health and disease, 13(1), 154.
Li, Y., Hruby, A., Bernstein, A. M., Ley, S. H., Wang, D. D., Chiuve, S. E., … & Hu, F. B. (2015). Saturated fats compared with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: a prospective cohort study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 66(14), 1538-1548.