So you buy a jar of peanut butter that says “healthy” and “all-natural” on the front… but you flip it around and see that peanuts constitute only about 60% of the jar, and the rest is palm oil, sweeteners and a bunch of hard to pronounce words that don’t make complete sense, like “emulsifiers” and “permitted class II preservatives.” Doesn’t sound healthy or all-natural, does it?
This is why reading food labels, and knowing how to read them, is so important…because what’s on the back of the package tells you way more than what’s on the front.
Labels - you’re guide to eating healthier
Labels are a guide - the front, back, and sides of a package are filled with info about what the food contains and help us make healthier choices when it comes to packaged foods.
Understanding and knowing how to read a food label matters: it breaks down, in detail, the amount of calories, sugars, fats, fibre, carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals in the package, so you have a better idea of what you’re getting — and are able to compare it to similar products and choose what’s best for you.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you read a label, so you know how “healthy” a product really is.
Ingredients are listed in order of their weight. In fact, all ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including even added water! So the first ingredient listed, is present in the largest amount by weight. And the last ingredient listed, is present in the least amount by weight.
So if you buy an oat-and-nut cookie that is being advertised as a healthy cookie with plenty of oats and nuts, oats should ideally be the first ingredient, followed by nuts and other ingredients.
Labels list the calorie amount for one serving of the product. You need to check the serving size carefully. It may be given as the number of serving per packet, or by weight/volume in grams or millilitres. So you need to look at the net weight of the package, so you know the total amount of product within it.
All the numbers on the Nutrition Facts Label info is generally based on one serving, or per 100 grams of the products. This is where the maths can get a little confusing, and you may think you are consuming only a little fat/sugar/calories. You are reading the amounts based on a single serving, but the package contains more than a single serving.
For example: a bag of trail mix may show 100 calories and 2 g of fat per serving. But what you need to be wary of, is that the serving size could be doubled or tripled — meaning, the package in your hand could be worth 3 servings. So you are getting 300 calories and 6 g of fat from one package of trail mix!
Daily Allowances or GDA and DV%
We all need a certain amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and function well, each day. Some labels will list what is known as Guidelines for Daily Allowance (GDA) or Daily Value % (DV%).
This tells you what percentage of the daily requirement of a nutrient is contained within a serving of that packaged food.
DV is based on a 2000-calorie diet… so if a nutrient’s DV is listed as 10%, that means it meets 10% of the total amount of that nutrient you need per day. This is not a must; but having these numbers is an indication of how nutrient-dense a packaged food is.
The 5-Ingredient Rule
It’s always best to follow the 5 ingredient rule. If a packaged food has 5 ingredients or less, it’s always going to be better for you than anything that has a longer list. If by chance you pick up a “healthy” snack that has more than 5 ingredients, look for products that contain mostly whole, unprocessed, recognisable ingredients.
A bliss ball with dates + almonds + shredded coconut? Sweet (literally and metaphorically). A snack bar with dates + almonds + shredded coconut + cacao nibs + buckwheat flakes + stevia? Pretty decent. Something that has all of the above + soy lecithin and anti-caking agent and artificial flavours and colours? Not too healthy.
A few other things to keep in mind are added sugars and complicated-sounding ingredients, like maltodextrin, anti-caking agents, permitted class II preservatives and the like. There’s a simple rule of thumb here: if you have to Google what it means, it’s probably not all that great for you.
Food Label Glossary
- Added sugars: Most foods contain natural sugars. For example, a dried cranberry will contain natural sugar found in the berry itself. Added sugars refer to sweeteners and sugars (like sucrose or dextrose) that are added into that packaged food, during processing. This can include syrup, honey, refined sugar etc. Foods and beverages high in added sugars tend to be higher in calories and are not as healthy.
- Fortified: This just means essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals have been added to that particular packaged food. Fortified aata, rice, milk, oil, and salt can help you meet your daily requirement for nutrients.
- Natural flavours: These are essential oils or compounds that have been extracted from fruits, vegetables, spices, bark, leaves, meat, seafood, poultry and dairy products, to enhance the flavour of a food product.
- Artificial flavours: These are chemical mixtures and synthetically-produced flavours that mimic the taste and smell of naturally-occurring flavours.
- Emulsifiers: These are additives that are used to to help mix two substances or ingredients that usually have a tendency to separate or split when combined. You may find them under names such as lecithin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, polysorbates etc. While they are generally prepared from plant and animal sources, there are some artificial emulsifiers that exist.
Now that you know how to read labels better - you can shop for a variety of clean label healthy snacks on our Weight Loss Collection!