Many of my clients aren’t from the UK, and often ask me how to read the food labels here; it’s vitally important to understand the label in order to be in command of what you’re nourishing your body with. Even if you do understand it, far too few take the time to read and digest it – no pun intended! This post will set out some tips and tricks for staying on top of the label.
Questions I ask myself every time; is it high in fat? saturates? salt? carbs? sugar? Knowing the answers is essential to maintaining a balanced, healthy diet. The label should, at a minimum, list the information on energy – calories, protein, carbohydrate, fat and salt. Nutrition information is shown per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food. A good deal of supermarket products show a ‘traffic light colour coding’ system where red is a warning, and green is fine – but relying on these without further thought is lazy and won’t help awareness for the diet.
1) WHAT ARE THE GDA’s ???
Some product also list Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). The GDAs are based on UK government-set figures and are recommendations that give approximate amounts of certain nutrients and calories required for a healthy diet. GDA’s don’t account for your size, age, lifestyle, activity levels etc, so take them with a pinch of salt (literally!).
– FAT: Adult GDA is c. 70g, of which ‘saturates’ should be 20g (see ‘Ingredients’ below for more on this). Beware if the product has >20% fat, and I tend to think that <5% is truely ‘low fat’.
– SUGARS: Adult GDA is c. 90g. Sugars are carbs, so look for the ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ part on the label. You might see it as sucrose, fructose, maltose, honey, corn syrup or starch – but ultimately it’s still sugar. Aim for complex sugars, which are slow release, and sustain your blood sugar levels at a more constant rate through the day. Think whole grains, whole wheat, seeds, nuts and pulses. Too much simple sugar risks diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
– SALT: Adult GDA is c. 6g (one teaspoon!). Also labelled as sodium, it regulates nerves and the overall fluid balance in the body, but too much over time increases blood pressure and can lead to heart disease and/or stroke, plus it can make you look and feel bloated as it retains water. To cut down on salt when cooking use herbs, spices, garlic, ginger, lemon zest or chili (will up your metabolism!) instead, to add flavour. Use low-salt stock. When buying tinned foods get them without the added salt or brine (e.g. tuna in spring water). Avoid microwaved ready meals, and if you must (for some inexplicable reason) get it with reduced salt. Keep an eye on sauces they’re are often high in sodium too.
– CALORIES: Adult GDA is 2000 Kcal (calories) a day, though that will clearly vary hugely depending on gender, activity, metabolic levels etc. It’s a measure of energy contained within the food, so if you consume too much food-energy, you’ll store the excess as fat. Basic, but sometimes people forget this. Equally, if you have too little, you’ll lack the nutrients required to function properly! It’s about balance and control, which is the whole point of this post!
2) INGREDIENTS ???
– When reading the ingredients manifest, the nearer the beginning an ingredient is listed, the higher the content, e.g. if honey is the second thing listed on your granola bar, then that bar certainly contains a lot of sugar.
– Avoid transfats, they are usually fish or vegetable oils that have been artificially hardened by hydrogenation, they increase bad LDL cholesterol 🙂 and reduce good HDL cholesterol 🙁 which can contribute to stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and worse. You can usually find them in biscuits, cakes and pastries – so watch out for any oil that says ‘hydrogenated’ before it.
3) THE LAW ???
– All food products must legally be labelled and not be misleading – great in theory, but unfortunately it’s not like that in practise. You might fancy yourself for having an antioxidant boost when you drink a ‘blueberry milkshake’, but often it won’t contain blueberries – much like ‘cheese & onion crisps’ usually don’t contain onion.
– The word ‘light’ also has no legal definition, and simply means the product might be lighter than another product (which product that is we don’t know), whilst it might only refer to fat, alcohol, sugar or salt. Similarly, with ‘Low fat’, there’s no legal guideline around this, which makes it lazy and misleading to just ‘trust the claim’. Check it. Don’t let the food manufacturer insult your intelligence!
4) HOW TO COMPARE & CONTRAST !!!
– Deciding which product is healthier for you is very easy – don’t over-complicate it, and don’t be intimidated by the numbers.
– Whenever you look at two products, each will show a ‘Per 100g’ or ‘Per 100ml’ column – if you see that product A has 20g fat, that’s 20%. If you see that a similar product B has 10g fat, that’s 10%. If product A happens to weigh 200g, then you’re eating 40g fat out of your c. 70g GDA – that’s clearly way too much! Product B (also weighing 200g) would invariably be a better choice here at 20g fat. There are complexities around types of fat, amount of sugars (as discussed above) etc, but broadly, the process should be that simple.
I really hope this helps not only foreigners like myself, but also encourages more curiosity about what we’re putting in us (think ‘horse’ or ‘beef’). Worth checking the sell-by date too – the fresher the better!