Whether on a diet or just trying to make healthy choices for our children we all find ourselves looking, often bamboozled, at food labels.
Thankfully legislation in this area is growing and packaging is becoming more standardised in its nutritional labelling. With a bit of practice and some useful tools it can become easier to understand the information available and make better choices.
Understand the basics
Not everyone has a science background, or studied home economics in school. If you don’t know your good carbs from bad, or the difference between transfats and calories leaves you confused, then start here. Otherwise feel free to skip ahead to labels lesson itself!
Calories are the amount of energy a particular food supplies - as a rough guide an adult needs about 2000 calories a day to fuel their body. However calorie requirements vary with gender, age, physical activity, pregnancy etc. and so it is important to consider this when assessing food intake.
Carbs are our body’s main fuel – it should provide about half of our energy. It comes as sugar and starch (complex carbohydrate).
Sugars occurs naturally in fruit, milk, honey etc and also in forms that are refined (corn syrup, cane sugar etc.) and added to food in processing and baking.
Starch is present in rice, grains, pasta, potatoes.
These two types of carbohydrates are sometimes popularly called good (starchy) and bad (sugary) carbs. The truth is, there is really no naturally bad food, just food taken in the wrong amounts or processed to an unrecognisable substance!
Left over energy from carbohydrates are stored in the body as fat. Starchy carbohydrates tend to release their energy in a slow sustained manner as opposed to the short sharp burst the body gets from sugar. As a result they provide a much more beneficial fuel and make up the foundation of the food pyramid.
Protein comes from animal and plant sources and is the building block of our tissues, especially muscle tissue. Approximately 15-25% of our food intake should be from protein.
Fat is present in plant (olive oil, avocado, nuts) and animal sources (oily fish, dairy and meat) Not all fat is bad. In a healthy diet, about 30 percent of your total daily calories can come from fat — but ideally we should limit our saturated fat intake to 10% of our total calories (e.g. full fat dairy, fat in meat) and opt for more fish and plant based oils.
Transfats should be avoided where possible as they are associated with high cholesterol (LDL) – they arise from processing fats and so are found in many margarines, deep fried foods, and factory-made baked goods.
The Food Pyramid
And finally have you ever seen a nutritional label on an apple? The more we eat whole foods, unprocessed, without the addition of salt to preserve and sugar to hide the taste of the salt, the healthier we will be. So remember each week to put foods in the trolley that you can enjoy just as nature intended.
Labels come in three main types
- Ingredient lists – as a rule of thumb if it feels like you are reading Latin or the list is as long as your arm it is probably best to put the packet down!
Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, and for many products you should be able to guess what the top 3 should be. However alarm bells should ring if for example sugar is the second ingredient in a food that you wouldn’t normally think of as sweet, such as bread or a pasta sauce.
- Nutritional Information – these are the most complex labels to decipher but once you can break down the food into your basic food groups it makes a lot more sense.
Look first at the calories AND at the serving size
All labels are standardised at 100mg or ml of the product. A serving may be less or more than this. You may end up eating a bag of crisps with 3 servings in it thus 3 times the calories that you may think at first glance.
Then see what makes up the calories?
Is the food high in fat or sugar? Low in salt and high in fibre?
A breakfast cereal will be mostly carbohydrate. A healthy breakfast cereal should be made of complex carbohydrate (starch) so it will be important to see how much of the cereal is ‘of which’ sugars – compare a bowl of bran flakes with corn flakes to find out…
A tray of minced meat should be made mostly of protein. The label should indication what percentage of the meat is fat, or if salt has been added…this is where the detail comes in.
Salt - this can be confusing. If it is labelled as sodium (common in the USA) you need to multiply x 2.5 to get the salt content.
The Irish heart foundation have produced and excellent information card designed to help you shop with advice on salt and a ‘traffic light system’ for food labels.
- Guideline Daily amount
To simplify things, many companies are now printing a condensed guideline daily amount on the front of their products. This is usually described in portion size so again the first thing to do is see how many biscuits or how much pasta is in one portion.
This quick glance system is excellent if used with the Irish heart foundation’s traffic light system card. You will soon get used to the fact that 5 g of sugar (approx. one teaspoon) is a low sugar food per portion etc.
Finally, some labels will contain addition information on important vitamin content such as Vitamin C or Calcium.
Use your knowledge to be wary of packaging claims – fat free yogurts will often have a 0% fat claim on the pack – in reality the taste is replaced with often huge quantities of sugar!
Now for the homework!
Rather than sweating in the supermarket try out this information in your own fridge or larder first. Pick out your top 20 food items that find their way onto your list each week and have a look at the labels – you may be pleasantly surprised or shocked at what you find! Then make a couple of substitutions as needed each week – soon you’ll be filling a much healthier basket!