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5 Key Steps to Reading a Food Label
5 Key Steps to Reading a Food Label

5 Key Steps to Reading a Food Label


Food labels provide a wealth of information about what you're eating, but knowing where to start and what to look for can take time and effort. It can be overwhelming with so many different terms and numbers to decipher. But, with some knowledge, reading food labels can become a simple and valuable tool in making informed choices about your diet. By understanding the information on a food label, you can make informed decisions about the food you eat and work towards a healthier lifestyle. This article will guide you through reading a food label and help you understand what each section means and what to look for. So, whether you're trying to maintain a balanced diet, manage a health condition, or make healthier food choices, here are the five key steps to reading a food label:

1. Read the ingredients list

The ingredients list will give you a clear idea of what is in your food. You will often find that the ingredients list has several items you are unfamiliar with – particularly foods with a long storage life. It is important to note that the ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the first ingredient being the one that weighs the most. Look out for ingredients you try to avoid, such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or artificial colors and flavors. If you see them near the top of the list, it's probably best to put the product back on the shelf. This is also a great place to check where salt lies on the ingredients list (more on salt later).

2. Check out the nutrition information and serving size

The nutrition information will give you a breakdown of the calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and other nutrients in the food. This is the best information to compare different foods, as food labels usually provide details on the exact serving sizes. It's important to note the serving size, as it will give you an idea of how much food you should eat to get the nutrients listed. Be aware that the serving size listed may be smaller than what you would typically eat, so you will need to adjust your portion size accordingly.

3. Look at the type of fat and how much

Fat is an essential part of our diets, but it is important to understand the different types of fat and how much we should consume. There are two different types of fat, saturated fat and unsaturated fat, also termed ‘bad fat’ and ‘good fat,’ respectively. Fats generally carry many calories, and it is important to try to minimize your intake of saturated fats as much as possible. Saturated fats in foods such as butter, fatty meats, and cakes contribute to increased cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, such as avocado, nuts, and seeds, are much better for your heart health. When reading a food label, the following rules apply to determine if the fat content is deemed high, medium, or low:

  • Low fat: 3g or less per 100g
  • High fat:5mg or more per 100g
  • Low saturated fat:5g or less per 100g
  • High saturated fat: 5g or more per 100g

4. Identify sugar and check for naturally occurring sugars

Sugar can be added to foods to enhance flavor, but too much can lead to weight gain and other health problems. Sugars include any naturally occurring sugars, such as those present in fruit, and sugars added to foods, including those used for preserving and flavoring purposes. Remember that some foods may seem high in sugar but contain naturally occurring sugars, which is less of an issue. You want to select foods with as close to zero added sugars as possible. A quick note – if the sugar is listed on the ingredients, it is an added sugar, not natural sugar. In some cases, sugar may also be discussed as other ingredients on the ingredients list, so look out for the following:

  • Honey
  • Syrup
  • Nectar
  • Molasses
  • Fruit from concentrate
  • Anything that ends in ‘ose,’ including fructose and dextrose. 

5. Beware of salt

Salt is an important part of our diets and is a common ingredient in most foods. Still, too much can be detrimental to your health and impact the development or exacerbation of several health conditions, such as hypertension. Therefore, salt-controlled foods and low-salt options are ideal, with less than 150mg of salt per portion. It is also important to remember that salt is not always listed as ‘salt’ and may appear as sodium on the ingredients list. The nutrition information will tell you how much salt is in the food, but it's also important to be aware that some processed foods can be high in salt. If you are watching your salt intake, look for products with low or reduced sodium, or consider making your meals at home where you can control the amount of salt used.

Reading food labels is critical to making informed choices about what you eat. It allows you to understand what exactly is in your food and make choices that align with your health goals and dietary restrictions. By paying attention to the serving size, ingredients list, and nutrient information, you can make educated decisions about the food you consume. Remember, a food label is a valuable tool that can help you lead a healthier lifestyle.

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