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Cracking the food label code

Food marketing is a clever thing, designed to not only sell a product, but also to sell a carefully crafted perception. For instance, there might be a breakfast cereal you associate with being slim and therefore assume it is calorie-free, or maybe you think a yoghurt drink that implies it prevents stomach bloating is low in sugar. Most of us take key messages and associate them as 'good' or 'healthy' foods.

However, if you look past the marketing jargon and read the ingredients and nutritional information you often discover that many products are not as virtuous as their advertising suggests. Every food must display their ingredients (which are always listed in descending order, ie, the largest ingredient comes first) but only food companies who make health claims such as 'no added sugar' must display nutritional information. Thankfully, there are legal guidelines in place so that certain food claims must adhere to stringent criteria.

What the label says and what it actually means

To use one of these claims, manufacturing companies must comply with set criteria.

  • Low Fat/97pc Fat Free = Less than 3g fat in 100g

  • Low in Saturates = Less than 3g saturated fat in 100g

  • Virtually Fat Free = Less than 0.3g fat in 100g

  • Reduced Fat = At least 25pc less fat than standard product

  • Low Sugar = Less than 5g sugar in 100g

  • Sugar Free = No added or naturally occurring sugar

  • No Added Sugar = No extra sugar added. However there could be artificial sweeteners or natural sugars, so check the label carefully.

  • Reduced Sugar = At least 25pc less sugar than standard product

  • High Fibre = At least 6g fibre in 100g

  • Reduced Sodium (salt) = At least 25pc less sodium (salt) than standard product

  • Low Calorie/Diet = Less than 40 calories in 100g or 100ml

Making sense of the nutritional panel

The nutritional panel on the product label gives you a breakdown of nutrients contained in the product. Energy is measured in kilocalories (kcals) and kilojoules (kJ), while other nutrients are displayed in grams (g). Fats can be broken down into saturated and unsaturated fat -- unsaturated fat is healthier but no less fattening than saturated fat. The phrase 'Of which sugars' indicates the amount of refined carbohydrates compared to complex carbohydrates (which we will go into greater detail in week three).

Food labels -- what to look out for when it comes to ...

Less is better, 0.01g or less of sodium or salt means there is a small amount per 100g, while 0.5g or more means there is a lot per 100g.

This appears on the label under 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)'. Between 2g and 10g per 100g is a moderate amount of sugar. Anything below 2g is low, while above 10g is high.

Too much saturated fat raises bad cholesterol and highers the risk of heart disease. Between 1g and 5g of saturates per 100g is moderate. Anything below 1g is low and above 5g is high.

Next week: In week three get the low-down on carbs, fibre and GI foods.