Making sense of food labels

Labels provide us with useful information about what packaged food contains, they can be confusing (not to mention misleading). Remember the labels are also there to help sell the product – so you need to look more closely if you really want to understand what you are eating.

What should we eat?

As a nutrition coach, when I’m working with my private clients, I am looking at the science of what to eat to achieve their specific health goal but just as important is how much you eat (as well as why and how, but that’s another story).

It’s very easy to accidentally find yourself eating either too much or too little. So what does the ‘average’ person need to eat in terms of energy every day?

Each dayWomenMen
Sugar25g (6tsp)31g (8tsp)

Hidden Starches

When buying starchy foods like bread, rice and pasta, look for wholegrain/ whole wheat / wholemeal varieties. Avoid any form of sugar, white or refined foods and look out for hidden starches in the ingredients list such as potato starch, corn starch, and rice starch – all of these will be broken down into sugar by the body. Your body cannot tell the difference between these starches and real sugar.

Per 100gA lotA little
Sugars 10g 2g

Be Label Savvy

When you see a claim like “No added sugar” or “30% less sugar”, look closer at the label. The manufacturer will want the low-sugar version to match the taste of the original as closely as possible. A famous trick is to add maltodextrin – a polysaccharide and therefore technically a starch, not a sugar. However, it is still broken down into sugar very quickly and will impact your blood sugar levels, which is important for all aspects of health.

When you see “50% fewer calories”, again, read the label. The product will be lower in fat than the original but, for this to be true, it must be higher in carbohydrates. For example, a packet of crisps – made of fried potato slices and salt – is not a healthy food and is high in calories. A packet of ‘healthy’ crisps right next to it may be lower in calories and ‘baked’ but could well contain potato starch, maize starch, rice starch and maltodextrin. Is that a healthy crisp? No.


Ingredients are listed by the order of weight. The ingredient used the MOST is listed first, and the ingredient used the LEAST is listed last!

How many ingredients does it contain?

WHY IT MATTERS: Foods with many ingredients are often highly processed (“ultra-processed”). Processed foods are often less nutritious and are designed to be “highly palatable” … which means you’re likely to eat more of them in one sitting and also more frequently. This can translate into eating more calories with less nutrition value.

Do you KNOW WHAT each ingredient IS?

WHY IT MATTERS: Many times, unhealthy fats (like hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) and added sugars can sneak into your food under different names. Manufacturers know people get (on a conceptual level at least) they should eat less sugar so they work hard to call that sugar by another name to fool you into thinking their product is healthy. Tricky, right?

TOP 10 ingredients to watch for

I’d need a lot more space to list out all the names on the naughty list but this list, while not exhaustive, is a good starting point if you want to know you are eating as well as you can for your health.

Bottom line: if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, it’s probably not something you want to put into your body! And if you don’t recognise something as ‘food’, chances are your body won’t either.

  • Artificial Dyes & brighteners; Blue 1, Caramel color, Red 3 (Erythrosine), Red 40, Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5 (Tartrazine), Yellow 6.
  • Artificial flavors & enhancers; Autolysed yeast extract, hydrolysed protein, monosodium glutamate (MSG), “natural flavours.”
  • Artificial Sweeteners; spartame, sucralose, and saccharin are some of the main ones.
  • Sugars; There are many names for sugar, including glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, honey, treacle, agave, fruit juice, lactose, isoglucose, dates dried fruit raisins/sultanas, grape concentrate.
  • Bleached flours or other processed flours.
  • Refined & Processed Oils; Rapeseed (aka canola) unless cold pressed, corn, partially hydrogenated oils, soybean.
  • Preservatives; BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), calcium propionate, propylparaben, methylparaben, propyl gallate, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate, TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone).
  • Thickeners & emulsifiers; Carrageenan, lecithin, gellan gum, cellulose gum, guar gum, monoglycerides, diglycerides.
  • Dough conditioners; Azodicarbonamide, calcium peroxide, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides).
  • Processed food supplements; Soy protein isolate is a common highly-processed genetically modified protein supplement in many “healthy” or diet foods.
  • Trans Fats; Avoid anything on a food label that says ‘hydrogenated’ – including ‘partially hydrogenated’. These are trans fats, and damaged fats, which are unhealthy. They’re often found in cakes and biscuits to prolong their life or enhance the mouth feel.
  • LOW FAT; Items with no more than 3g fat per 100g may be labelled ‘low fat’. Reducing the fat content, of foods dramatically reduces their calorie content, because fat has 9kcal/g, whereas carbohydrates have only 4kcal/g. Removing fat from foods affects their flavour and texture, which is usually remedied by adding sugar. Result: a lower-calorie product but with a higher GL than the original. This is never a good thing.
  • Additives; E.g. colourings, flavourings, preservatives, thickeners, etc. Additives deemed safe by the EU are given an E number. However, they can have effects in some people. For example E155 can trigger asthma in some people. In general, reducing your additive intake is a good thing and you can do this by eating less processed food and more whole organic foods.

Calories & Macros

It’s not that calories don’t matter at all but they matter much less than we have been led to believe. Metabolism is much too complex to be reduced to the simple calorie equation of “calories in < calories out = weight loss” and “calories in > calories out = weight gain”. This simplistic approach dismisses the metabolic effects foods have once we have eaten them, suggesting that the result of ingesting 150 kcal from a fizzy drink has the same effect on your weight as 150 kcal from raw almonds, but this is simply not the case.

About serving sizes

Will you eat more, less, or the same amount as the recommended serving size?

It’s also helpful to look at the number of servings in the package. You might be surprised by what the manufacturer suggests!

WHY IT MATTERS: The suggested serving size is the amount of food represented in the nutritional breakdown.

This is important because it’s easy to eat more than the suggested serving size without ever realising it – especially when it comes to ultra-processed foods. Breakfast cereal is a good example. The packet might say a serving is 30g but who eats that amount? The reality is that most people – even children – would pour more into their bowl.

As a result, you could be unknowingly taking in a LOT more of whatever you are checking for than you anticipated.



Many people don’t eat enough fibre and there are big repercussions for health. Fibre slows down the speed at which sugars land in your bloodstream, helping to keep glucose levels balanced. Fibre helps with digestion. Fibre can be soluble or insoluble (the distinction is not made on food labels) and can feed the good bacteria in the gut as well as keep you regular. If you’re following a diet where “net carbs” matter, these aren’t always listed on labels but you can work this out for yourself using the following formula: total carbohydrates in grammes minus fibre in grammes equals net carbs in grammes.