by Mays Al-Ali

Reading nutritional  labels properly is super important and being able to understand what you are looking for is the first step. Being able to understand what information is on a label 

will make it much easier for you to compare foods and find foods that have the nutritional value that you need; allowing you to make healthier food choices about what foods to buy. Food labels give you very useful information on the amount of fat, sugar and cholesterol in them helping you to reduce these in your diet, where needed, as well as other useful information on the amounts of vitamins, fibre and protein which you want to optimise.

Processed and packaged foods are the ones you need to scrutinise the most. Because eating these types of foods should be avoided but, sometimes, when only certain supermarkets are the only option to shop at, it’s tricky to find something that isn’t processed or packaged in these big supermarket chains. Therefore, correctly reading and understanding nutrition labels is key. Often processed or packaged foods are filled with additives, fillers, emulsifiers, preservatives and E numbers and these can be a big trigger for gut health; increasing the incidence of leaky gut as well as causing lots of digestive discomfort. Here’s what you should be looking for:

One of the most common mistakes that people make about reading food labels is that the nutritional info is based on one serving of that particular food. A food label may show that a food has 100 calories and only 5grams of sugar but if you look at the number of servings, it may say it has three servings. So, if you were to eat the entire packet, you would actually be getting three times the amount shown on the food label, i.e., 3 times the amount of sugar! So, for this example 300 calories and 15 grams of sugar. So, don’t be fooled - always check the per serving nutritional value and the amount of servings in that package.

Always check the order the ingredients are listed in. Labels list ingredients in order of amount, so if a carton of almond milk has sugar, water and almonds in that order you will know that the highest content is sugar and lowest is almonds – it’s good to know what the majority of a product contains to know what to avoid or ingest – ideally we do not want to be consuming foods with high sugar content so if you see an item with sugar as the first in the ingredient list I would recommend avoiding it. The NHS recommends that adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day (roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes). So, knowing the amount of sugar in a product is super important as I always encourage clients to reduce sugar in the diet as it is very addictive, inflammatory and hormone disrupting.

Salt is another thing to watch out for. 6g of salt per day is the NHS recommendation for adults (containing 2.4g of sodium) which is around 1 teaspoon. Having too much salt in our diets can cause high blood pressure which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Having high blood pressure often doesn’t have any symptoms which is why stroke is often known as the ‘silent killer’. Foods that usually have lots of salt include smoked, cured or canned meat, fish or poultry and processed meats such as frankfurters, sausages alongside ready-made meals and ready-made jars of sauces (both of these are usually loaded with sugars and salt too so always check the labels here).

It’s also important to increase fibre in the diet, the NHS recommends 30g of fibre per day but research shows that most individuals only consume 18g per day in the UK, so we have a long way to go! Fibre is essential for a happy gut microbiome for optimum gut health and is known to increase satiety helping with weight loss. So always check food labels to optimise high fibre foods.

Often processed and packaged foods are high in saturated fats. Eating too many saturated fats in the diet can increase the “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Men should not be consuming more than 30g of saturated fats a day and women should not eat more than 20g of saturated fats. If a label is high in saturated fat – it will have more than 5g of saturates per 100g. If it is low in sat fat – it will have 1.5g of saturates or less per 100g or 0.75g per 100ml for liquids. These are key pointers to look out for

The red, amber and green colour coding used on some front of pack nutrition labels is also something to look out for. These colour codes tell you at a glance if foods have high (red), medium (amber), or low (green) amounts of fats, saturated fats, sugars and salts. The greener boxes on the label the healthier the choice, whilst foods with all reds and ambers should be limited. But even the green “supposedly more healthier meals” may actually be higher in sugars, salts and fats than foods we make ourselves at home – when we make our own food, we can limit the quantities of unhealthy additions (and also save money too!) so I always advise to go for more home-made meals over ready meals, where possible. 

If a food states that it's “light” - by law, the UK regulates that it must be at least 30% lower in value of either calories or fat than the standard version of the product. The nutrition label has to explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much e.g., “light = 30% less fat”. Sometimes there can be very little difference between foods that label themselves ‘light’ and those that don’t e.g., a ‘light’ version of one brand of crisps may contain the same number of calories or fat as a normal version of another brand. And those tempting “low fat” biscuits may have more calories than you think, so it’s important to always check the label and look at the information per 100g or the red, amber, green colour coding rather than just the branding.