Food Labelling – understanding the nutritional information

When we pick up items of food in the supermarket, it can sometimes be hard to make healthy choices. Do we buy low-fat, or high-protein? What’s the difference between carbohydrates and sugars? What does all that stuff on the back of the pack mean, anyway?

The food you eat is divided into two main groups; Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Macros are the items you need large quantities of, while micros are the ones you only need small amounts of. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, while Macronutrients consist of protein, carbohydrates and fats. Fibre is not really a nutrient, but can be considered as a macro, as it’s important for health and you should aim to include 30g a day into your diet.

Food labelling therefore covers these macronutrients and tells you how much of each macro is in the product. The front of the pack may also have a traffic light system, where certain macros are marked in red, orange or green, although this information is a bit selective and not always helpful.

First of all, let’s cover what macros you need. Your daily food intake should consist of 50-60% carbohydrates, 30-35% fat and up to 20% protein. This is covered in more depth in this blog post. When looking at nutrition labelling, you will see these macros listed, with further sub-categories for sugars under carbohydrates and saturates or saturated fat, under fat as well as how many calories are contained per 100g or per serving.

In this picture we see that these vegetarian burgers have 232 calories per burger, 12.5g of fat, 10.3g of carbohydrates, 2.4g of fibre and 17.3g of protein. 0.9g of the fat is saturated fat. Saturated fat should be limited to just 10% of your intake per day, as a diet in saturated fat is associated with heart disease, high cholesterol and other health conditions.

Under carbohydrates is a line, “of which sugars”. Carbohydrates include starch, sugars and fibre. Sugars enter the blood stream rapidly, so should only form a small part of the diet. Fibre is generally considered indigestible, but is vital for gut health. When you see this line, “of which sugars”, it usually means sugar has been added to the product. Foods high in sugar have a high Glycaemic index, are high in calories and frequent consumption, can be a cause of type-2 diabetes.

As a processed food, these are actually quite low in saturated fat, so other than the salt content, aren’t that unhealthy in terms of nutrients.

This label is from a vegan pizza. As we can see, the fat level is actually a bit lower than the burger (per 100g), however the proportion of saturated fat is much higher. In fact, in just half a pizza, it’s 60% of your recommended maximum intake. The carbohydrate content is also much higher (because of the dough) as are the sugars. Calorie wise, it’s actually similar to the burger (per 100g), although if you ate a whole pizza, you’d be looking at 1,172 calories, 90% of your daily salt intake and 120% of your daily saturated fat intake. It’s not a big pizza, either, most people could easily eat a whole one., so, overall, pretty unhealthy!

What about foods labelled as low-fat? Well, the problem with this is that in many cases, the fat has been replaced with sugar. Because fat makes food taste nice – remove the fat, remove the flavour. A yogurt, or oat bar advertised as low-fat may actually have a large number of calories, because it’s high in sugar. Go for natural or Greek yoghurts, which don’t have sugars added. Don’t forget, fruit-flavoured yogurts can also be high in sugar.

Ingredients have to be listed in order, greatest to smallest. If you see sugar near the top of the list, then it’s one of the main ingredients. You may be shocked to see how many health bars have sugar as the first or second ingredient.

These are the ingredients and nutrition information for some chocolate mint fondants. As you can see, the second ingredient is sugar. There is more listed as sugar: glucose syrup and invert sugar syrup. All sugar. In fact, pretty much anything which ends in -ose, such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, etc. is sugar. Honey maple syrup are also sugar, so watch out for those, too.

The fat here comes from the cocoa butter, which is high in saturated fat. With the carbohydrates, almost all is added sugar, rather than naturally occurring. Obviously no one is going to say chocolate is a healthy choice, but it just shows how much sugar is in some products.

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