A trip to the supermarket
Nutrition labels on food can often be difficult to understand at first sight, however, interpreting these labels properly can help to make healthier food choices simpler and easier. This may take some time at first, so we recommend going to the supermarket with some time to spare, but with some practice, shopping with food nutrition labels in mind can quickly become second nature. Bear in mind these food labels can often contain small writing, so if you usually wear glasses to help you read then bring those along too!
Nutritional information can be found on the back or side of the packaging, and more increasingly in the form of a traffic light system on the front of the packaging. This labelling contains information of the amount of energy the food contains (measured in kJ or kcal), as well as the fat content, the saturated fat content, the protein content, the sugar content, and the salt content. This information can either be displayed as content per pack or serving or per 100 grams of the food.
What do the numbers mean?
The numbers on the packaging let us know if the food we are looking at is high in fat, sugar etc. or low or somewhere in between. Have a look below for some reference ranges to help you interpret food labels in future.
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g
The traffic light system
Thankfully, many manufacturers are now producing food with easier to understand labelling on the front of packaging using a traffic light system to indicate the nutritional content of the food.
This traffic light system of red, amber and green is easy to understand.
- Red means a product is high in fat or calories or sugar etc.
- Amber means medium
- Green means low
This can make comparing two different food choices a lot quicker and easier, as the more green colour coding you see on the packing, the healthier the food. We also recommend limiting your intake of foods with one or more red colour coding on the label.
These labels also often contain a percentage below each nutrient that tells you how much this particular food will contribute to your recommended daily intake of that nutrient.
For more information about specific food labelling terms used by manufacturers such as “use by”, “diet” or “lite/light”, visit the NHS website.
What about carbs?
The labelling on the front of the packaging is voluntary and is the result of campaigning to make it clearer and easier for people to make informed choices on how healthy a particular food is. The reference values you see colour coded are fats, sugar and salt and these are measured on EU set criteria for low, medium and high amounts.
Sugars will make up a percentage of total carbohydrates, so, for example, a food may have 3g of carbohydrates of which 2.5g are sugars.
The reason why carbs are not included on the front is that there are no set criteria to determine what a low, medium or high carb content is in a particular food. It is important to remember that all carbohydrates will raise blood glucose levels so check the labels on the back for total carbohydrates from starchy food as well as sugars.
When it comes to carbs it’s better to choose wholegrain varieties as these are more filling, have a lower glycaemic index and will have less of an effect on blood glucose levels. Diabetes UK has some really good information about food labelling and some food shopping tips for buying healthy foods and keeping the costs down.