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Guide to reading food labels

15th August 2018

Food labels spark a lot of interest and questions.  On the surface, reading a food label sounds like it would be straightforward as after all, by law, there are certain things which must appear.  But on closer inspection, this may not always be the case.

At first glance, what are the things that you notice? The product’s name, maybe its flavour, either a best before or use by date, the weight or amount in the packet, the brand.  Looking closer, you should also be able to find an ingredients list (it might be in smaller print) with any allergens highlighted in bold and some nutrition information, some form of table or headline messages, for example ‘reduced fat’ or ‘gluten free’.  All of these things must be on the label somewhere by law along with one or two others.

When trying to determine if a food or drink is a healthier choice for you, the easiest way is to focus on the nutrition information.  This is normally presented in a table – again watch out for it being in smaller print.  However, as there is no standard way of presenting this information, it can get complicated.  The food and drink companies and supermarkets have their own idea of what a serving size or portion of their product is, and this refers to the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) of an adult female – which isn’t helpful for children or for males.  Our tip for you to keep it simple when looking at food labels, especially those which are processed, is to use the traffic light labelling system.

The traffic light labelling system highlights a few key nutrients – their total fat, saturated fat, total sugars and salt content per 100g or 100ml for drinks.  Per 100g/100ml are used as they are a standard measure so that you can compare between products as opposed to different brands’ serving/portion sizes.  The tables below show the values.

If you read the back of a food or drink label, check the 100g/100ml column and a quick glance will tell you if it’s red, amber or green.

If it’s RED this food or drink is high and aim to eat or drink this occasionally.

If it’s AMBER this food or drink is medium and is an okay as it is an in-between choice.

If it’s GREEN this food or drink is low and is a healthier choice and aim to have these products more often.

There may be other headlines or messages which appear on the food label for example; ‘low fat’ and ‘reduced sugar’.  Companies are able to add these claims on to their products as long as they are factually correct but bear in mind if they have taken something out it has probably been replaced with something else to keep its taste – as after all they still want you to buy their product(s).

We run a variety of free healthy lifestyle programmes where you can learn more about food labelling and eating more healthily. Choose where you live from ABL in your Area at the top of the page to see if we’re active in your area.

This year, we have partnered with Sports Tours International, as their Community Health and Wellbeing Partner! We will be at their upcoming races- UKFast City of Salford 10k on 9th September and JD Gyms City of Preston 10k on 30th September.

To find out more information visit the Sports Tours International website and get £5 off your entry if you want to sign up for the race using ABL5.