How to read food labels

Avoid hidden sugars and nasty food additives

Understanding food labels and nutritional information on packaging can be confusing. Trying to decipher how much sugar a product contains or whether the ingredients are good for you leaves many shoppers feeling puzzled. Supermarket shelves are lined with products claiming to be healthy but the reality is often a different matter.

In this article we’ll be sharing tips on how to read food labels and things you need to watch out for. Learn how to read a nutrition label with confidence and know exactly what you’re buying.

Understanding food labels

Being able to understand a food label has never been more important. With so many products claiming to be “sugar-free”, “natural” and “a healthy alternative”, it’s essential to differentiate clever marketing from the real deal. Food manufacturers make it their job to attract our attention to sell us their products. Amazing sounding nutritional claims such as “gluten-free prunes” are often designed to mislead shoppers and encourage purchase because of the “healthy” claim attached to the product. For those who aren’t aware, all prunes are gluten-free as they are not derived from wheat or grains.

When reading a food label, here are the main things to look out for:

  • Obscure ingredients. If it’s a name you’ve never heard of or it sounds like something out of a science lab, chances are you shouldn’t be eating it. Examples include DATEM and Sodium Aluminium Phosphate (SAP).
  • Sugar content. You can determine the amount of sugar in a product by looking at “sugars” underneath the carbohydrates section in the nutritional panel.

Every 4 grams of sugar equates to 1 teaspoon of (table) sugar. So, for example, if a product has 16g of sugar per serving, it actually contains 4 teaspoons of sugar. You’ll be astounded when you discover how much sugar is in products targeted at children such as yoghurt and cereal bars.

  • Hidden sugars as these are everywhere in our foods and contribute to a whole host of health conditions. Learn more about hidden sugars.
  • Low sugar or low-fat claims as it usually means another (not so healthy) ingredient has taken its place. Low fat products tend to be higher in sugar, processed starches or salt and sugar-free products contain unhealthy sweeteners instead.
  • E-numbers. These are additives and preservatives added to foods to prolong their longevity. Read more about harmful food additives.
  • Rancid oils. Avoid any foods that contain hydrogenised oils (like rapeseed oil) such as margarine, breads and baked products. These oils have been chemically tampered with and contain trans-fats which are toxic to your cells.
  • Genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Keep away from all GM foods such as soybean, corn and rapeseed (canola). The DNA of these crops have been genetically altered using technology and we don’t yet know what the long-term health implications could be.
  • Country of origin. Knowing where your food comes from tells you how sustainable it is, whether it’s in season and if it comes from a local or international grower. Food from overseas, which has travelled lots of air miles, is far less sustainable than produce grown by local farmers.
  • Production method. Understanding how food items have been made is essential. Has it been artificially farmed or does it come direct from the ocean (as with salmon or trout)? Is it organic, grass fed, free-range or mass farmed (as with meat, dairy and eggs)? Animal products that are mass farmed or synthetically produced are exposed to chemicals, vaccines and hormones which are not healthy for the human body.

Read food labels with confidence

Start making empowered decisions about the products you buy by reading food labels and nutritional information. Eat foods in their natural state (organic where possible) and avoid foods with hidden sugars and additives. If the ingredients are undecipherable or the product contains GM ingredients or rancid oils, you know it’ll do more harm than good in your body.

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