Understanding food labels

Does anyone look at the back of the packaging to look at the ingredients and how many calories it contains and wonder how on earth to read it? Some of us who have obsessed over food for years likely look at it and check things like the fat content and calories but how many of you actually check the rest and understand it? Like the sugar content for example?

We have all spent many years picking low fat options but my advice is to start looking at the sugar content in these products too. For example a fat free yogurt would be tasteless if it did not have any sugar added to it… It will also not fill you up. Fat in yogurt is not bad for you. In fact it would be far healthier to eat a full fat yogurt that will not leave you feeling hungry after a short while topped with some fruit. The sugar content would be a lot lower and a lot easier to process by your body.

I am going to try and explain the best I can how to read a food label and what to look for when choosing your foods.

This label is the nutritional content of the food… The first column lists the main components of the food. Second column lists how much a 100g portion contains in grams. Third column how much a typical serving contains. The forth column is the percentage this product contains of an average adults (usually male) daily recommended allowance for that particular component and lastly the final column is the recommended daily allowance for the average adult.



For this blog although the last 2 columns are important we will focus on the other 3 and in particular the sugar content.

It is hard to look at a nutritional label solely to determine if the food products sugar content comes from added sugars or complex carbohydrates. See my blog on Cutting the sugar… for a detailed explanation.

The carbohydrate of which sugars total includes natural and added sugars! Natural sugars are found in fruit and milk and these sugars are more easily digested by the body so we do not need to worry as much about these. Although if you are trying to stick to a low sugar lifestyle like me our bodies can easily digest up to 2 pieces of fruit so it is best to stick to this and eat more vegetables or low sugar fruits like berries or along side some fat like cheese. This counteracts the blood sugar rise that we want to avoid. Again you can find more information in my Cutting the sugar… blog.

It is the sugar added to foods we should be avoiding, and the easiest way to determine if it is natural sugars or added refined sugars is to look at the ingredients list.

Less than 5g per 100g is low in sugar, more than 22.5g per 100g is high.

We should get most of our energy from whole foods and complex carbohydrates rather than those containing sugar. Choose wholegrain varieties when choosing your starchy carbohydrates.

Now lets look at the ingredients list….Ingredients are listed in order of weight so the further up the more it contains.


As you can see from this picture sugar is the second ingredient listed and it is listed again in the added flavouring so in this low fat yogurt you have sugar added to the yogurt and then again to the added fruit flavouring. This product is sold to us as “healthy”.

Check ingredients list for anything ending in “ose” glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose. Types of sugar found in honey, agave, molasses and syrups corn and rice. These are all added sugars and we should stay with in our recommended allowance when eating these.

Now that we understand the nutritional part of the packaging we will look at the front…

On some food items you will find a quick glance guideline on what the food contains in a portion. They list the most important things we should be looking at i.e. calories, fat, sugar and salt. Some of these quick glance guidelines also have a traffic light system (see pictures below) Green means good, amber is ok and red is high in that particular component.


This system makes it easier to decide on something at a glance. Choose items lower in fat, low in sugar and low in salt. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example a joint of lean beef is likely to be red for fat but this fat is a whole food. It would be silly not to eat it just because it is red. We need this fat in our diets. If buying meat products i.e. mince I always choose lean cuts that contain less than 5% fat. Yogurt is another good example. I always have the full fat plain options as they do not contain added sugar. You still need to watch for the added sugar in the flavoured full fat ones though.

Items that are high in sugar are likely always best avoided but again there are exceptions to this. For example a prepared fresh fruit pot will likely be high in sugar but it is obvious this is not the kind of sugar you need to avoid. What you need to check for is the added refined sugars which will be listed in the ingredients. If sugar is mentioned put it down. Especially if it is near the top.

You can get more information on labels from NHS guide on food labels and Change4life.
What is classed as high and low? (Figures taken from the NHS guide on food labels)

Total fat
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
Saturated fat
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
Salt and sodium
Salt is also called sodium chloride. Sometimes, food labels only give the figure for sodium. But there’s a simple way to work out how much salt you’re eating from the sodium figure: salt = sodium x 2.5.
High: more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

What is meant by Low fat, Fat free, Light…

A food has to have less than 30% lower fat or calories than its standard product. The label should state what it is referring to by being light i.e. 30% less fat.
Compare it with the standard product to actually see how much this light option will benefit you. It may not be that much and it may have added sugars to add flavour and could contain as many if not more calories than the standard product.

A food that is low in fat can not contain more than 3g fat per 100g or 100mls

Fat free must contain less than 0.5g per 100g or 100mls

No added sugar or unsweetened

They do not mean that the food contains no sugar.
No added sugar or unsweetened may still contain natural sugars found in fruit and milk.


I hope this has helped you to understand labels a little better and remember these points:

  • Check the ingredients list for added sugars ending in “ose” as well as “sugar”
  • Glance at the traffic light system on the front of the packet and try and go for more greens
  • Compare similar products and choose ones lower in calories
  • Try and have more whole food and steer away from unhealthy processed foods


Jaimee x

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