Baffled by the ingredients lists on the back of your favourite foods? We find out how to decode them and understand them better
What do the little numbers on the backs of our favourite foods really mean? Small and confusing enough to strain both our eyes and our patience from aisle 1 through to 13, what are the stats that we should be paying extra attention to in order to get the most out of our weekly grocery shops?
We asked nutritionist Gabriela Peacock for her nutritional know-how to separate the food faff from the nutrition facts and finally make sense of our food labels to ensure that we shop wiser, smarter and give our kitchen cupboards a healthy helping hand in the right direction.
1. First things first...
“Most pre-packed foods show a list of ingredients. They’re listed in order from biggest to smallest. So if the first few ingredients are high fat things like cream, butter or oil then the food is a high fat food,” explains Gabriela.
2. KJs decoded
What the heck is an ‘Energy’ reading and what targets should we be aiming for? “The terms kJ and kcal tell you how much energy is in a product,” says Gabriela. “Women need on average 2000kcal a day to be healthy. Men need 2500kcal. Children need less.”
3. RDA redefined
“Reference Intake (RI) - this has replaced RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance),” Gabriela points out. These are the guidelines set regarding the approximate amounts of particular nutrients that we should be shooting for each day. “The %RI for an adult is based on the following values:”
Energy - 2000kcal
Fat - 70g
Saturates - 20g
Salt - 6g
4. Sneaky salt
What should we be wary of? “Hidden salt,” warns Gabriela. “Salt is a risk factor for high blood pressure and is hidden in lots of processed foods so look out for the salt/sodium figures on labels.” Aim for 6g a day as detailed above.
5. Fat facts
When it comes to the different fat figures, pay particular attention to the ‘Saturates’ reading. “‘Saturates’ tells you the amount of saturated fat. Saturates and saturated fat mean the same thing. Lower saturated fat means a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” explains Gabriela. The recommended RI is 20g per day.
6. Portion control
As useful as serving sizes are on food packets, beware, as they may not necessarily reflect reality entirely accurately. “Portion sizes are often given on a pack and may be less than you would usually eat,” warns Gabriela. They are best used as a rule of thumb.
7. Brand research
Finding stepping out of your food comfort zone tricky? Escape your fridge rut by closely examining the nitty gritty of your favourite foods as well as contrasting them with similar products from different brands. “Try to check the things you buy regularly. Compare them with others and change to healthier options. What’s in food varies enormously between brands,” says Gabriela.
8. Red alert
Contrary to popular belief, red doesn’t always mean danger. Judge a food’s nutritional value by taking into account its wider benefits too and combining it with a modest dose of moderation and caution. “Often the red labels on the front of a pack indicate that the food isn’t particularly healthy. There are some exceptions such as cheese – a good source of calcium but it is high in fat,” explains Gabriela.
9. Mindful eating
Think before you eat. For example, nuts are high in healthy, saturated fats. “You don’t need to cut them out altogether but you should eat them less often," says Gabriela.
10. Label-less wonders
If all else fails, ditch the labels altogether. “Ideally you want to buy food products that don’t have a label – such as fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish and wholegrains which you know have nothing added.”