Going to the supermarket to buy your lunch or do your weekly shop can be overwhelming. You stand in the aisle wondering which product is healthier; the one in your left hand or the one in your right hand?
With more of you wanting to eat healthier, I’m going to help you understand the information on packaging so you can make informed decisions about the foods you’re eating.
Most pre-packaged food and drink will display ingredients lists and nutritional information but fresh fruit and veg, items from the bakery, deli and fish counter, and alcohol often don’t.
Ingredients lists are usually displayed on the back of packaging. They are listed in order of weight and therefore the main ingredient is always listed first. If the first ingredient is sugar, then it is likely that the product is going to be high in sugar.
Sometimes ingredients can be misleading, for example sugar has many different names such as glucose syrup, fructose, glucose-fructose syrup, golden syrup, coconut sugar, agave, dextrose, honey, invert (sugar) syrup and molasses, and it can therefore appear multiple times in the ingredients list under different names.
Back of pack nutritional information
Nutritional information is generally displayed on the back of packaging and can appear in a table format (like the above picture) or as a list. Information on energy (kilojoules (KJ) and kilocalories (kcal)), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt is displayed. Sometimes information is also provided for fibre, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, and certain vitamins and minerals.
The nutritional information is always displayed per 100 grams (g) (or millilitres (ml)) and sometimes per portion. If the product does not display the nutritionals per portion, you can calculate it by multiplying the nutritionals per 100g by the weight of the bar (.i.e. 0.40 for a 40g bar). However, be aware that the manufacturer’s idea of a portion size may not be the same as yours, for example you normally eat more than the recommended 30gs of breakfast cereal.
Some products also display information on what percentage of your reference intakes (% RI) the food or drink provides. Reference intakes, as shown below, are the maximum amount of calories and nutrients an average adult aged 19 to 65 and weighing 70kg is recommended to eat in a day:
Energy: 8400 KJ, 2000kcal
Total fat: less than 70g
Saturated fat (saturates): less than 20g
Carbohydrate: at least 20g
Total sugars (of which sugar): 90g
Salt: less than 6g
Front of pack nutritional information
Supermarkets and some food manufacturers also display nutritional information as a label on the front of pre-packed food and drink. This can be very useful when comparing 2 products at a glance. It is often given per 100g/ml or per portion, and includes energy alone or energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The nutrition labels on bottles of drink can sometimes be per 100ml rather than per bottle, so make sure you check.
Percentage reference intakes can also be provided and the traffic light or colour coding system can be used to indicate whether a product is high (red), medium (orange) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. If the colour coding system is not shown, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the guidelines below:
High in fat: more than 17.5g per 100g
Low in fat: 3g or less per 100g
Saturated fat (saturates)
High in saturates: more than 5g per 100g
Low in saturates: 1.5g or less per 100g
High in sugar: more than 22.5g per 100g
Low in sugar: 5g or less per 100g
High in salt: more than 1.5g per 100g
Low in salt: 0.3g or less per 100g
As a rule, food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt, should be eaten less often and in smaller amounts. However, the colour coding system does not always indicate whether a food or drink is healthier. For example, almonds show up as red on the nutritionals as they are high in fat but the type of fat in almonds is a healthy fat which is good for your heart, and they’re also a good source of protein and vitamin E. Whereas white bread will show up as green on the nutritionals but it has little nutritional value.
Fibre and protein do not fall into the colour code system however it’s important to be aware of the values used below to indicate whether a food is ‘high in’ or a ‘source of’ protein and fibre.
‘High in’ fibre: more than 6g per 100g
‘Source of’ fibre: less than 3g per 100g
‘High in’ protein: more than 20% of the energy value (calories) of the food
‘Source of’ protein: more than 12% of the energy value (calories) of the food