Your guide to using food labels easily and effectively

Last Updated on Thursday, 8 April, 2021 at 11:31 am by Andre Camilleri

Article by Dr Georgiana Farrugia Bonnici (Medical Doctor) and Christine Busuttil (State Registered Nutrition Therapist)

Often during the working day, we grab a quick lunch from a nearby take-away, but do you know what the labels mean?

Food labels can be a big help in health and nutrition management, however, they might also be difficult to understand, and perhaps not as straightforward as consumers would expect.  This article will focus on how we can use these food labels to better guide our food choices to help with fueling our body with the right foods.

Our first recommendation would be to understand portions.  Most labels give values for 100g portions, which more often than not are not the portion being consumed.  In order to understand the energy value, (more commonly known as the calories of a product), it is more important to understand the portion that one intends to eat.  Is it more or less than that 100g portion which is indicated on the packet?  Let’s take yoghurt as an example, where most single serving containers are approximately 150g in size. Therefore, if the calories of a 100g portion is 80 calories, in a single tub serving of approximately 150g, one is in fact, consuming 120 calories.  

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Serving sizes tend to be similar on all packaging and the 100g values can generally be found on most labels, as this makes it easier when comparing the nutritional values of similar products.  In fact, food labels must all follow the same format set out by the European Union to ensure accuracy and conformity.

On some labels, the Reference Intake (RI) is also listed, which serves as a daily requirements guide, based on an average sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity.  These reference intake values are not intended as targets and are generally based on a 2000 k/calorie diet, unless otherwise stated.   The intention of the reference intake is to give consumers an indication of how nutrients from that particular product contribute towards one’s daily intake.  Often, these values are represented as percentages.  As an example, if a 100g portion provides a reference intake of 1 % of fat, then such product, based on the portion indicated, contributes toward 1% of the recommended daily fat intake. Once again, some adjustments need to be made for the portion being consumed. The reference intake is often also used to indicate how a specific product contributes towards specific vitamins and minerals recommendations.  For example, a 100g portion of orange juice contributes towards 5% of the daily recommended daily Vitamin C intake.

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The best way to use the Reference Intake % is to choose foods that are:

  • Higher in %RI for Dietary Fibre, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium
  • Lower in %RI for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

Consumers are also curious about the macro-nutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) contents on food labels, more specifically how much is too much or too little to consume. There seems to be a lot to navigate on one label in one short shopping trip, but ideally one should have an idea whether food products exceed the daily recommended intakes.

The table below which is issued by the Maltese Public Health Department offers a good guide of high, medium and low sugars, fats, and salt intakes, based on 100g portions.  But what does this all mean in terms of food labels?

*Dietary Guidelines for Maltese Adults

As with the reference intake, when looking at nutrition labels, products with a lower sugar, salt and saturated fat contents are generally better for our health.  Sugar on nutrition labels accounts for both naturally occurring sugars like those which are found in milk (lactose) and fruits (fructose), as well as added, refined sugars. When using yoghurt as an example, one will notice that a 100g portion of a flavoured yogurt contains approximately 10g of sugar when compared to a natural Greek yoghurt, that has approximately 4g of sugar.  Comparing the two products, one can easily notice that the flavoured yogurt, thus has 6g of added sugar.  As a general rule, we recommend an intake of lower than 6g of sugar per 100g portion, to prevent obesity and diabetes, as well as promote cardiovascular well-being.

Fats also come in many varieties and thus, it is important to be able to distinguish between the bad and the good fats. As a general rule, one should aim to keep saturated fats on the lower end, by choosing food products that contain 1.5g or less saturated fats per 100g portion.  Trans fats are best avoided all together as they along with saturated fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. On the other hand, the good fats are referred to as the monounsaturated and the polyunsaturated fats. In fact, the British Nutrition Foundation recommends that the daily fat intake of polyunsaturated fats to be at approximately 6.5%, whilst that of monounsaturated fats to be at around 13 % of our total daily energy intake.  This means that if one is following a 2000 calorie diet, 6.5% and 13% of those calories should come from poly and mono-unsaturated fats respectively, as these can lower the LDL (bad) cholesterol and prevent complications associated with hyperlipidaemia, such as heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

Carbohydrates are typically given as a total amount on food labels, along with a rough indication into how much of which is sugar and fibre. Carbohydrates are not an enemy as it is one of the macro-nutrients, after all. However, those with elevated glucose levels need to be more mindful with their carbohydrate intake.  One should look out for products that are higher in fibre, as these tend to regulate glucose and also benefit those with elevated cholesterol levels.  It is also recommended that adults get anywhere from 25 -35g of fibre per day, and this can be achieved by being mindful when selecting products in the supermarket.  While it is important to keep the fibre content high, it is equally as important to ensure that the sugar content, particularly that of added, refined sugars, are kept within the lower recommended ranges.

Finally, the ingredients list is an equally important reference on food labels as it gives us a lot of information at a glance.  Ingredients generally appear in the greatest to least amounts. Hence, if sugar is the first ingredient listed on a food label, then this is a very good indication that the product contains more sugar than any other ingredients. One should also be able to recognize certain synthetic items on the ingredients list. If there are a lot of E-values (ex. E200), then the product may be laden in additives and food colourings, which are best avoided as these have a tendency to increase the risk of cancer. Morever,  items outlined in bold, such as nuts, eggs, wheat or dairy products, are high allergen items and are a great way for those with allergies to easily be able to recognize items that they may be allergic to. 

Having a better understanding about the food being purchased will help consumers in making better, healthier and informed food choices.  If one stays mindful of this, the battle is pretty much won! As with anything, moderation is key, and no one is expected to have a perfect diet.  Following the 80% diet/20% exercise philosophy would ensure good health and a little wiggle room!

“You don’t have to eat less; you just have to eat right!”

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