Learn How to Read a Label

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One of the challenges that many people have is understanding the nutritional label on a food product and trying to decipher what it actually means. It can be very confusing and disconcerting , especially when you don’t know where to start! I’m going to explain to you how you can do this and also point out important things you need to look for when reading a label. Hopefully this will leave you feeling more confident and the next time you go to look at a label, you will totally nail it as once you can read one, you can read them all! 

Why is reading a label important

Reading labels is super important because you need to know what is actually in the food or drink that you are putting into your body. Food and beverage manufacturers do a great job at attracting our attention. It is their job to make us buy these products so that is why they often use great marketing techniques and amazing sounding nutritional claims. You see claims like ‘gluten-free prunes’ and ‘cholesterol-free avocados’ – of course prunes are gluten free, they are not made from wheat and of course avocados are cholesterol free, they are not an animal product. Many of these claims are designed to mislead and you need to be able to see past them so that you can make an empowered decision about whether you want buy the product or not. The only helpful bit is to read the ingredients and look at the nutritional panel as these are going to tell you what you need to know.

Things to look out for on a label

  • Hidden sugars – these are EVERYWHERE and food manufacturers do a great job of hiding them by calling them all these wild and wonderful names! I will tell you some of these names shortly.
  • Avoid low-fat options as these tend to be higher in salt and sugar. Don’t fall for the claims ‘fat-free’ or ‘no added sugar’ – this is just clever marketing designed to attract your attention. Actually have a look at what else is in it.
  • Undecipherable ingredients that sound as though they have come out of a science lab – if you can’t even pronounce it then it’s highly likely that it is a food you shouldn’t be eating!
  • Additives & Preservatives – these will either be displayed as a name or a number (or ‘E-number’ if it is from the European Union). The names that are used are very deceiving as they usually sound quite harmless – again this is just a trick to fool you into thinking that it’s ok. The reason that names are used more often nowadays is that consumers have become more savvy and are aware that ‘numbers’ are something to be avoided.
  • Fortified vitamins and minerals – this shows that the product has been so refined and processed that the manufacturer has actually had to add a synthetic vitamin/ mineral back into the product to make it nutritionally viable! Again, great marketing as it attracts your attention and makes you think that it MUST be ‘healthy’ as it contains all these ‘nutrients’.

Sugar in all its many forms

In order to find the sugar content of a product, you firstly need to look at the ingredient list and then drop down to the nutritional panel. As I already mentioned, you need to be very wary of products that claim they are “sugar free” or have “ no added sugar” – this typically means they are free of sucrose (table sugar), but other types of sugar may be present such as fructose, corn syrup etc. The average person eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day and most of this is hidden sugar. Processed foods (food that comes in packets) are where most sugars are hidden, so reading the label is very important.

Sugar can be ‘hidden’ by being called any of the following names:

  • Barley malt
  • Buttered syrup 
  • Cane juice crystals
  • Caramel 
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Carob syrup
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Diastatic malt
  • Diatase
  • Ethyl maltol
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Galactose
  • Glucose
  • Glucose solids
  • Golden syrup
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Honey
  • Lactose

  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Panocha
  • Refiner’s syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Sorbitol
  • Sorghum syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Treacle

Once you have looked at the ingredient list and figured out if there is any ‘hidden’ sugar in it, you then need to go down to the nutritional panel where you will see the amount of carbohydrates in the product. Directly underneath the carbohydrates is ‘sugars’ and this is the number that you need to be concerned with. It will usually give you the ‘Average quantity per serving’ and the ‘Average quantity per 100 g’.

The tip you need to know is that 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar.

So the number you see next to sugar (either by serving size or per 100 g) is the number that you need to divide by four to get the number of teaspoons of sugar either per serve or per 100 grams.

When you do this, you will be staggered by how much sugar is actually in the foods that you’re eating. Next time you are in the supermarket, check out the flavoured yoghurts, especially the ones marketed at kids – some of them contain up to 5 or 6 teaspoons of sugar per serving!

Additives & Preservatives to avoid

There are literally hundreds of additives, preservatives and colours out there which are added to food and drinks all the time. It can be very overwhelming when you look at a label and see all these names or numbers that you don’t recognise nor know whether they are good, bad or downright ugly!

Here are some of the ‘nasties’ that you definitely need to look out for:

  • 120: Cochineal - linked to hay fever, asthma, itching, nausea and allergic reactions.
  • 160b: Annatto extracts - may cause irritability, head banging, hives, headache, sleep disturbances and restlessness.
  • 220: Sulphur dioxide – may cause asthma, anaphylaxis, nausea, diarrhoea, neurotoxicity and destroys vitamin B1.
  • 320: Butylated hydroxyanisole - may cause respiratory, endocrine, skin, liver, immuno and neuro toxicity, so it can literally be toxic to your whole body!
  • 407: Carrageenan – linked to inflammatory bowel disease and gastrointestinal inflammation.
  •  621: MSG or Monosodium L-glutamate - linked to heart palpitations, heart arrhythmia, tingling, numbness and depression.

There is a great book called ‘The Chemical Maze’ by Bill Statham which you can use as a reference and it is fantastic to take shopping with you (it is handbag size too!). There is also an app version available.

Foods are meant to be fresh and not laden with additives and preservatives so if it can sit on a shelf for a long time then chances are that it has so many things added to it that there are not many nutrients left in it!

Hopefully this has helped to shed some more light on how to read a label and what things you need to look out for. My advice is – start reading labels and take a closer look at what is actually in the food you’re eating.

If you have any further questions about reading nutritional labels, then please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it for you!


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Michelle is a qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist, Reflexologist and Reiki practitioner who is passionate about living a holistic lifestyle and helping others to achieve their health goals. She is also a Jungle Body Dance Fitness Instructor, which not only keeps her fit but also helps her to inspire others to feel confident and get in shape.

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