What’s behind the confusing packaging of your ‘healthy’ shopping? Here’s your guide to decoding your labels

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Are the contents of your shopping trolley as healthy as you’re hoping they are? A closer look at their labels may say otherwise.

The food sector has faced a fair amount of scrutiny in the past months, especially with regards to certain products that thrive on the perception of being ‘healthy’ when they may actually be far from it. Gluten-free snacks for example recently came under fire for their salt content, where it was reported that three-quarters of them contain greater levels than conventional alternatives (up to five times in some cases). Clever packaging also plays a role too with breakfast cereals from brands such as Dorset Cereals, Rude Health and Eat Natural also being criticised for the absence of nutrition labels on the front of their boxes and packets, and Nestle, Jordans and Kellogg’s for the lack of colour coded labels on theirs.

Deciphering what’s healthy and what’s not is increasingly becoming a minefield and the often confusing and unclear way certain products are packaged and labelled is making healthy food shopping harder than ever. Opinions and findings are changing by the day (as is the evolving nature of nutritional science) but what can act as a useful guide for checking your products against that you can use today? In terms of what to look for in your labels and what your healthy foods are potentially hiding, we requested the nutritional therapist’s perspective to help provide some clarity on the far from clear-cut issue.


...is, (as we’re sure you’re probably well aware), no longer public health enemy number one. That honour goes to sugar according to nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy , but more on that later. Something high in fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided measures concerning quality control are taken. “Fat has been touted as the bad guy but recent research has changed this thought process,” he says. “As a rule of thumb, anything unprocessed should be consumed without worry.... obviously don't binge eat but moderate consumption is fine. This means avocado, nuts, seeds and oily fish are all fine. Do also eat the whole egg (it won't raise your cholesterol) and include cold pressed oils such as coconut and olive oil. You need fatty acids from your diet to function optimally so this is where such foods come in.” For example, oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, and walnuts have been highlighted as good sources of omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown to benefit heart health.

As for what to try to avoid, Daniel pinpoints trans fats and unhealthy macronutrient combinations as the ones to watch out for - the latter being a key way that many brands get shoppers hooked on certain foods. “Avoid fat when mixed with sugar, e.g. milk chocolate - manufactures know the bliss point to get you craving more,” he says. “The mix of fat and sugar (carbs) is what causes ill health.” He adds, “Also avoid man-made fats such a margarine which your body just doesn't recognise.”

Unfortunately though, changes in the way fats are viewed aren’t necessarily reflected by the current system of food coding and labelling in the UK. “The traffic light system doesn't work,” says Daniel. “It doesn't take into account the type of fat, thus labelling avocado and nuts red.” He adds, “There’s a big focus on calories and not the quality of the product. Fat is 9 calories per gram compared to carbs and protein which are 4g so naturally fat gets the bad name here.”

In terms of current government guidelines regarding daily intake (included below), Daniel believes that they do have their place - provided that the above points on fat differentiation are taken into account as currently, they aren't, with the focus placed more on saturated fats at this point in time. He does tend to agree with the guidelines as a whole, but prefers that people eat more full fat products than low fat ones as the latter can often contain more sugar. It can be quite individual though in his experience, and there are some people who are able to handle fat better than others.

Total fat

  • high fat – more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
  • low fat – 3g of fat or less per 100g, or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids (1.8g of fat per 100ml for semi-skimmed milk)
  • fat-free – 0.5g of fat or less per 100g or 100ml

Saturated fat

  • high in saturated fat – more than 5g of saturates per 100g
  • low in saturated fat – 1.5g of saturates or less per 100g or 0.75g per 100ml for liquids
  • saturated fat-free – 0.1g of saturates per 100g or 100ml


...seems to be the component that requires greatest vigilance. As a useful first port of call though, check the label to see how much sugar the product has per 100g. “Keep it under 10% so 10g of carbs per which are sugars,” recommends Daniel when it comes to deciding whether something is worthy of being deemed ‘healthy.’ “In an ideal world, this would be 5% though.”

Secondly, he cautions against anything that claims to be a lighter alternative. “‘Diet’ or ‘Light’ versions are generally full of preservatives or full of sugar,” he explains. “For example, Weight Watchers diet biscuits have more sugar in them than Walkers shortbread.” Well, that’s certain to fuel shoppers’ suspicions, especially in light of the recent headlines concerning breakfast cereals hiding high levels of the sweet stuff due to their lack of label transparency. What should you look for in your cereals? Daniel advises the below per 100g:

Sugar <10g (less than 10% as mentioned above)

Fat <20g (fat content could vary depending on nut content)

Salt <0.04g (there’s no need for salt in breakfast cereals)

Extra care should also be taken when it comes to healthier sounding sugars too according to Daniel and they should be limited and used naturally. Furthermore, consumers should be mindful of hidden sugars. Here are the factors he recommends bearing in mind:

Fructose: “Fructose has been marketed as a healthier sugar as it does not cause a sharp rise in blood glucose levels,” says Daniel. “However, research shows that a high intake of high fructose corn syrup (present in many processed foods and drinks) may promote overeating and weight gain as it does not stimulate leptin [i.e. the satiety hormone].”

Daniel also highlights keeping an eye on the sucrose present in table sugar, maple syrup and molasses. “Raw sugar, brown sugar and natural sugar are often promoted as healthier but it has the same effect on the body as sucrose,” he explains.

Sugar alcohols: Such as xylitol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol and erythritol. “They are in reality neither sugars nor alcohols and are becoming increasing popular as sweeteners,” explains Daniel. “They’re not completely absorbed in the gut so provide fewer calories than sugar however, they can cause flatulence, bloating and diarrhoea.”

Sucralose (splenda), aspartame and saccharin: “These have been linked to a variety of health conditions despite being low in calories,” says Daniel and so alternatives may be a better option.

Agave syrup: Although derived from the agave cactus, it’s not as healthy as its roots suggest. “This is best in small quantities as even though it’s low GI, it contains a high fructose content,” says Daniel.

Healthier options

Daniel’s top picks include organic maple syrup (used sparingly) and using fresh or dried fruit in baking. He also recommends considering molasses made by refining sugar cane and sugar beets. “It has less sugar and contains minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium,” explains Daniel. He also highlights stevia in its natural form as a potential replacement. “It doesn’t cause spikes in blood glucose and is available in powder and liquid variations. It’s very sweet and each product differs so check the label,” he says. Xylitol can also be beneficial in small doses due to its lower GI score and from a dental health perspective by helping prevent bacteria from sticking to teeth. A bottle of honey is also useful to have in your kitchen cupboard too. “It’s 53% fructose but does provide some health benefits in moderation,” points out Daniel. “It’s sweeter than sugar, so less is needed and manuka honey is also antibacterial.”

MORE GLOSS: Are you brushing your teeth all wrong?


...is important to bear in mind, especially in light of recent exposure regarding its levels in gluten-free snacks. Per 100g, Daniel recommends the below for keeping your gluten-free snacks free of unpleasant surprises.

Sugar <1g for savoury snacks, (“Savoury foods should not have added sugar in them,” says Daniel)

<5g for sweet snacks

Fat <20g

Salt 2g (“Note that salt may be from sea salt which is better than sodium chloride as it’s less processed,” says Daniel).

His guidelines apply to both gluten-free as well as other health snacks too. He recommends choosing wisely. “Free-from can still have a lot of preservatives and additives to make it last longer,” he warns. “Watch out for ingredients you don't recognise.”

As the recent findings regarding salt levels in gluten-free snacks shows, a level of scepticism should be given to perceptions that all free-from versions are healthier alternatives. As nutritional therapist Petronella Ravenshear  points out, “Terms like ‘natural’, ‘free-from’ and ‘light’ are meaningless when taken out of context – take no notice of them until you read the label and look at the sugar content. We all know now that ‘free-from’ food doesn’t mean healthy food but it’s a useful label for anyone who is following a gluten or dairy-free diet. We need clearer food labelling but until we have that, our best bet is to study labels carefully and look at the amount of sugar in our snacks.”

If a DIY approach appeals, Petronella recommends the following: “Two oatcakes with almond butter or tahini, or a handful of walnuts or almonds, or a couple of hard boiled eggs, with some blueberries on the side would be perfect and no need to read the label.”

Any final food for thought?

As can be seen from the above points, deciphering the healthy from the not-so-healthy can be a tricky task. However, hopefully the above will serve as useful advice to have to hand. Any final takeaways? Here are a few extra tips from Daniel to help make further sense of what's on our health food shelves:

The term ‘Organic:’ “Check the country of origin. UK seasonal non-organic produce may be better than organic produce from Thailand for example. Standards differ.”

The term ‘Natural:’ “Natural doesn't mean healthy and can still be laden with sugar and excessive levels of fat.”

Ingredients: “If the first ingredients include refined grains, some sort of sugar or hydrogenated oils, you can be pretty sure that the product is unhealthy. Another good rule of thumb is if the ingredients list is longer than two to three lines, you can assume that the product is highly processed.”

The serving size stated: “Be mindful, they’re often very small amounts - do people actually consume a 30g serving of cereal?”