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Food Labels: How to Read Them

The information on food labels allows us to compare products and make healthier choices. This guide takes the confusion out of understanding food labelling. 

The basics

By law, packaged foods must display the following 'nutrition information':

  • Energy (kJ and kcal) – kcal is the number of calories
  • Fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Carbohydrate
  • Sugar
  • Protein
  • Salt

This can be displayed as 'per 100g/100ml' and/or 'per portion'. Be careful with this, as it's easy to get caught out. E.g.: a bar of chocolate may read “171 kcal”: don't be enticed to eat the whole thing before realising that number related to just one strip!

Front of pack labelling

Key nutrition information is often shown here, so you can see important details at a glance. These include energy, fat, sugar and salt (all things we should limit for a healthy diet). The traffic-light system is often used to make the information easier to understand:

  • Green: The greener the label, the healthier it is. 
  • Amber: Products with mostly amber on the label can be eaten most of the time.
  • Red: Foods with lots of red on the label should be eaten occasionally, in small amounts, if at all.

Sometimes the traffic-light colours aren't used, which makes it a bit trickier. The table below shows the low, medium and high values, which you can compare the numbers you see on food labels to work out how healthy an item is.

Reference intakes

Labels often mention reference intakes (RIs). This gives us a rough idea of how much the item contributes to the amounts we need per day. For example, the label below shows that a serving contains 13% of an average adult’s daily calorie allowance.

RIs are not targets, but a guide to help us make healthier choices and steer clear of eating too much sugar, fat or salt. For example: if a serving provides 50% RI for sugar, this is half of your daily maximum, so you should choose low-sugar options for the rest of the day.

Back of pack labelling

Most packaged foods have a nutrition label on the back, which provides more detail than the front. For example:

You might find the extra information helpful if you are looking for a higher-protein snack to keep you fuller for longer.

Choosing between products

  • Looking at the per 100g/100ml column is the fairest way to compare products because the recommended portion sizes might be different.
  • Try to opt for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds. Choose the option lower in energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and/or salt. 
  • Remember that even the healthier option may be higher in fat, salt, sugar and calories than a home-made version!

This article was written by our Wellness Advisor, Jess. 

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