Meet our expert: Liz Tucker is a Nutrition and Health Consultant who works closely within the food and health industry to develop healthier products, www.selectfood.co.uk.
Food labels can be so confusing, especially if you’re trying to work out what’s healthy and what’s not. There’s ‘reduced fat’, ‘low fat’ or ‘light’, traffic-light symbols, and so many words for sugar. So here’s our
jargon-busting guide to understanding what you’re buying from the supermarket shelves.
“The total energy of a product must be displayed in both KJ (kilojoules) and kcals (calories) and manufacturers have to show the number of calories per 100g of the product,” says Nutrition Consultant Liz Tucker. Kilojoules are popular in Europe, but in the UK we talk about the kcals. Producers sometimes show the calories per portion size too, which can be helpful.
Too much salt could raise your blood pressure but it can be hard to spot on food labels. Current guidelines recommend that we should have no more than 5g a day. Salt is often hidden as sodium. To work out the salt in a product multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5.
Eating too much saturated fat could increase your risk of heart disease by raising your cholesterol levels. These fats are most often found in foods such as red meat, butter, cheese, and processed foods such biscuits, cakes and pasties. Women shouldn’t have more than 20g of saturated fat a day. Products low in saturates should contain 1.5g or less of saturated fats per 100g.
The order in which ingredients appear on a label relate to the weight of each constituent used – so the higher an ingredient is on the list the more there is in the product.
- Reformed “Meat which has been broken up and pressed together with water to look like a meat product is referred to as reformed,” says Liz. Look out for it on packets of ham or turkey slices. It’s generally less nutritious than unprocessed meat because the processing often adds fat or salt and removes nutrients.
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil The process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature is called Hydrogenation. Found in a variety of foods, most notably spreads, it’s also used in biscuits and cakes to prolong shelf life. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are high in trans fats and too many could increase your risk of heart disease.
- Monosodium glutamate or MSG can be added to foods to enhance flavour. Some people have reported unpleasant reactions to MSG, but there’s no proven link.
Fact or fiction?
Get to grips with label lingo!
- Low fat “Only products containing no more than 3g of fat per 100g, or 1.5g fat per 100ml in liquids, can be labelled ‘low fat’, while ‘fat-free’ foods must have no more than 0.5g fat per 100g/ml,” says Liz. But remember being fat free doesn’t make a product low-calorie, as it could still be high in sugar – sweets being a prime example.
- Reduced fat “This just means the product, for example Cheddar cheese, has reduced fat when compared to other Cheddar cheeses, but of course isn’t as low in fat as other types of food,” says Liz. Labels such as ‘light’ or ‘lite’ follow the same rules. The healthiest option is probably low fat – but check the calories too.
- Sugar free Many labels say sugar free, or no added sugar, but often there is hidden sugar. Food labels try to baffle you by including sugar as sucrose, dextrose or fructose – in fact any word ending of ‘ose’ is a hidden sugar. If you see any of these towards the top of an ingredients list it means it’s high in sugar. Look at the nutrition chart – under ‘carbohydrate’ there should be a line saying ‘of which sugars’ which will tell you exactly how much sugar is in it per 100g.
“The front-of-pack traffic-light system is used by supermarkets to quickly show us if a food is healthy or not,” says Liz. “These are handy, but they don’t always work well, especially for natural products.” For example, olive oil is high in fat and calories, but it’s actually high in the healthier unsaturated fat, which is good for us in small amounts.
What does ‘low’ or ‘high’ really mean?
Low fat = 3g of fat or less per 100g
High fat = more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low = 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High= more than 5g per 100g
Low= 0.3g salt or less per 100g or 0.1g sodium
High = more than 1.5g salt per 100g or 0.6g sodium
Low= 5g of total sugar or less for 100g
High = more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g
- There's more health advice in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.