May 5, 2016

A simple guide to understanding food labels

Anyone looking to build a fitter and stronger body needs to think about the food and drink they consume to ‘fuel’ this. We often talk about the need to get a well balanced intake of essential nutrients to help to deliver the right regime in and out of the gym, but how does that work in practice?

The trick rests in being fully aware of what is in the food and drink you consume. Only that way can you be sure that you are picking the right products that will suit your circumstances.

Luckily, if you understand how food labels work then you’ll be well placed to make these smart selections. Here are some pointers to make sure you know what you’re reading and, as a result, what you’re eating and drinking:

  • Food labels will provide data on the amount of energy the product provides, given as an amount per portion and per 100g.
  • The energy figure is given in kj (kilojoules) and kcal (calories). Remember, an average woman should consume 2,000 calories a day or 1,500 if looking to lose weight. For men, the figures are 2,500 and 2,000.
  • Many labels also use a traffic light system to indicate the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a product. Red reflects a high number, amber medium and green low.

What makes a red, amber and green number. Here’s what the colours mean:

  1. Fat – a green number is below 3g per 100g, amber is between 3g and 17.5g per 100g and red is anything above that. If a portion is bigger than 250g, a red number relates to 21g or more of fat.
  2. Saturates – a green colour is given to a product with less than 1.5g, amber for 1.5-5g and red for 5g or more (6g if a portion is above 250g).
  3. Total sugars – a figure of 5g or below earns a green label, 5-22.5g equates to amber and above that is red (27g if the portion size is 250g or more).
  4. Salt – green is given to a number of 0.3g or fewer per 100g, 0.3-1.5g earns an amber label and red is anything above that (or 1.58g and above if the portion is 250g or higher).

It’s one thing knowing how much of all this is in your item, but how do you know if this is good or bad? Reference Intakes (RIs) are also given on these labels to help with this. This shows you the percentage of the recommended amount of energy, fat, saturates, sugars, carbohydrates, protein and salt your item contains. There is no RI figure for fibre. These numbers are based on an average adult. The totals for the average adult are:

  • Energy: 8400kj or 2000kcal
  • Fat: 70g
  • Saturates: 20g
  • Carbohydrate: 260g
  • Sugars: 90g
  • Protein: 50g
  • Salt: 6g

As well as these facts, there may also be a number of statements about the health of a product. For a product to be sugar free, for example, it must contain less than 0.5g per 100g. To class as low fat it must contain less than 3g per 100g. Products that are ‘high in fibre’ have to contain at least 6g per 100g.

  • Any other health claims have to be approved by the European Food Safety Authority – so products cannot just make wild claims about what they’ll do to your health.
  • A label should also contain details of the full ingredients. This includes colourings, sweeteners, flavourings, vitamins and other additives.
  • On top of that, you’ll also see the practical information you need on the product’s ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date as well as cooking and storing instructions.

These basics should help you to understand most food labels. Reading these properly will enable you to see what you’re eating and how it fits into your balanced daily intake.

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