Take a look at some boxes of breakfast cereal and you could be forgiven for thinking you had picked up a GCSE mathematics text book, not a packet of your favourite flakes
For there, slap bang on the front of many packs is a list of calories, fat, salt and other nutrients in a bowl – along with information on other figures known as the 'Guideline Daily Amount' or GDA for short.
It looks mind-boggling complex any time of day, not least when you are half asleep at the breakfast table, and if the results of some surveys are to be believed, many food labels confuse rather than help us make healthy choices.
In a way this is hardly surprising. Think about it. On the one hand, manufacturers want us to buy their products and will do everything it takes on pack to get them into our trolleys. Blinding us with excessive nutritional information and health claims is favourite means of doing so.
But the good news is that by having all the real facts and figures you need to make healthy choices at your finger tips (see table below) and knowing a few classic pitfalls, can mean that getting label savvy does not need hours of swotting or poring over endless figures and graphs.
For example, 'Reduced Sugar' lablels have been around for several years, but may still be confusing. Just remember that 'Reduced' (whether referring to sugar, fat or salt) simply means the food contains 25% less of the nutrient referred to compared with the standard version. This is not the same as it being 'low' in these nutrients same as IT being 'low' IN THESE NUTRIENTS.
To avoid falling into such traps, the most reliable tool you have on a food label are the figures that appear in the nutrition box giving nutrients per 100g and better still per serving. Check out my quick guide for the inside track.
Quick Guide to Getting Label Savvy
The energy in food is measured in calories (kcal) and must be shown on the nutrition label as kcal per 100g of the product. Some manufacturers also choose to give calories per actual serving of the product. Eating more calories than we need leads to weight gain.
The Bottom Line: The guideline daily allowance of calories for women is 2000 a day and for men is 2500.
Total fat is given per 100g of the product and sometimes also per serving. Fat is a rich source of calories and overeating it can easily lead to weight gain.
The Bottom Line: 20g of fat per 100g is a lot. 3g of fat or less is a little. The guideline daily amount of total fat for women is a maximum of 70g of fat a day and for men is 90g.
Some labels also tell us how much of the total fat is saturated. Saturated fat is known to raise levels of 'bad' cholesterol in the blood that puts us at risk of heart disease. Attempt to cut back if you eat a lot of saturated-fat-rich foods.
The Bottom Line: 3g of saturated fat per 100g is a lot. 1g per 100g is a little. Women should aim for no more than 20g a day, men 30g.
The amount of added sugar in a food or drink is not always given. Sometimes only the total carbohydrate figure (which includes sugar) is supplied. If this is the case, look for where 'sugar' appears in the ingredients list. The higher up the list it is, the more sugar it contains. Be aware that sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, treacle, invert sugar (a mix of glucose and sugar used in making boiled sweets) honey, dextrose and maltose are all added sugars.
The Bottom Line: 10g of sugar per 100g is a lot. 2g is a little. Women should aim for no more than 28g (7 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, men no more than 34g (8 teaspoons) per day.
Sodium is a trace mineral naturally present in tiny amounts in food. Most sodium in foods comes from added 'sodium chloride' better known as salt. Most of us are aware that we should not eat too much salt, and with good reason, because it can raise blood pressure and significantly increase risk of stroke and heart disease. By law it is the amount of sodium in grams that must appear on the nutrition label.
The Bottom Line: Aim to cut right back on sodium by not adding salt to foods at the table and by avoiding processed foods that contain 0.5g or more of sodium per 100g which is considered to be a lot. 0.1g per 100g is a little. Women and men should aim for no more than 2.5g of sodium a day. Some products also give us grams of salt. We should aim for no more than 6g of salt per day including that found in food and the salt we add in cooking and at the table.
Traps and Insider Tips
Manufacturers have a 20 per cent leeway either side of the figure they declare. If yoghurt declares a calorie count of 100 per 100g, it could in fact have 120 or 80 and still be legal.
Insider Tip:If you are following a calorie-counted diet, stick to basics like porridge, meat, fish and two vegetables and fruit for snacks and buy a calorie counting guide to keep an accurate track, or use an app like 'My Fitness Pal.'
Low Fat Spreads
When used on any other food or drink, the legal definition of 'low fat' is that the product contains less than 3g of fat per 100g. Spreads however have their own set of rules. For a spread to qualify as 'low fat' it must have 40g of less of fat per 100g. A 'very low fat' spread must have 20 – 30g.
Insider Tip: There is no such thing as a spread that is genuinely low in fat in real terms.
Light and Lite
These terms can refer to the texture of the product meaning it is light in texture. Like a 'light' fruit cake. It does not necessarily mean it has fewer calories than any other version.
Insider Tip: Ignore these claims and head straight for the calories per 100g and per serving.
% Fat Free
Percentage fat free claims were supposed to have been voluntarily dropped by the food industry but are creeping back on to our food labels. The exception is if a food contains less than 3g of fat per 100g making it 97% fat free.
Insider Tip: Ignore all % free claims, even 97% fat free ones. With sweet foods like biscuits and cakes they may be 97% fat free but have extra sugar added to replace the fat that has been removed. Once again, check the calories before serving before tucking in.
When is a raspberry yoghurt not a raspberry yoghurt?
A raspberry 'flavour' yoghurt is just that. It is a yoghurt that is made to taste like raspberries by using artificial flavours. A raspberry 'flavoured' yoghurt on the other hand must have most of its raspberry taste coming from real raspberries.
Insider Tip: To cut down on artificial flavourings, avoid products that use the word 'flavour'.
You Can'T Have Your Cake and Eat It
If any product appears too good to be true, then it probably is.
Insider Tip: Always read the small print in the nutrition box.
What is Not on the Label
No Nutrition Information on Pack
This invariably means the manufacturer does not want you to know what he has packed away in his product.
Insider Tip: It is probably best to avoid these foods or drinks if you are strictly watching your calorie, fat or salt intake.
Trans fats are made when vegetable oils are hardened by a process called 'hydrogenation' to make margarine. They raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol which increases risk of stroke and heart disease. In America they will appeared on nutrition labels from January 2006. There are no plans to put them on the nutrition information panel in the UK as yet although you fill find supermarkets and individual food manufacturers are removing them from products and flagging this up on the front of packs.
Insider Tip: To avoid trans fats avoid foods that contain 'hydrogenated' fats in the ingredients list.
Pesticides, Hormones and Vetinary Medicine Residues
Manufacturers do not need to declare any of these substances used during production of their foods and drinks. They should be present in safe amounts in standard foods because they are monitored regularly by the Government.
Insider Tip: If you want to avoid them, go for organic foods. Look for a stamp from organic certifying body such as the Soil Association. To qualify for organic certification a food or drink must have at least 95% organic ingredients. Non organic ingredients can only be used if organic equivalents are not available. They must be declared.
What Does That Mean?
'Kitchen fresh scones'; 'garden fresh peas' and 'ocean fresh' fish are emotive words used to sway a shopping decision but they mean little concerning a product's quality. Don't be persuaded by the 'ahh' factor on food labels. Descriptions like 'Country Style' mean nothing. Try to think objectively before you buy.