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Don't be fooled by food labels

VISIT any supermarket and the shelves are piled high with 'fat-free' this, 'low-carb' that and 'sugar-free' the other.

There are many mixed messages about what you should eat and what you shouldn't, about 'pure foods' and 'super foods' and everything in between. The end result is often confusion, bad habits, declining health and increasing waistlines.

Many of us find reading food labels to be a tricky and mundane business, but being savvy in your food choices could make a difference to your health, especially if you have specific health goals, such as losing weight or lowering cholesterol.

Here are the 10 most frequently asked questions I receive about food labelling:

1 is all fat bad?

Not all fat is created equal. There are three main types: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Saturated fat is the unhealthy one that you need to look out for, whereas the others are considered healthy. Saturated fat is contained in butter, meat and dairy products and should be consumed in moderation, particularly if you are trying to reduce cholesterol. Also, avoid products that list 'hydrogenated' or 'partially hydrogenated' oils, as they are particularly harmful to health. These are often found in processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, crisps and crackers.

2 Should I care about carbohydrate content?

3 Should I go by 'per 100g' or 'per portion'?

Both are valuable in different ways. Nutrition labels will tell you how much of each nutrient there is in a single serving of the food and in 100g of the food. The serving-size information tells you what you will get if you eat one portion, for example one slice of bread. The 'per 100g' part lets you compare two foods which may have different serving sizes, such as two different types of bread, to see which has the most fat or calories. But watch out for foods that use unusually small portion sizes on purpose.

4 Kilojoules or calories?

Just look at the calorie content. The amount of calories present in a food basically means the amount of energy it will give you. Energy is only useful if we get the amounts that meet our activity levels, height, sex, etc. Excess calories will be stored as fat unless burned off.

5 Are all health claims fact?

Food manufacturers are required by law to be truthful -- ingredients and nutrition facts must be accurate within a certain margin. However, other claims are not held to the same standards. They can make a 'structure' or 'function' claim without much scrutiny, for example, 'maintains a healthy digestive system' or 'promotes healthy blood pressure'. Other phrases to be aware of include 'supports' or 'may reduce'. Most of these claims haven't been clinically proven and, while they may have healthy attributes, some are just fortified junk foods.

6 Is 'low fat' the healthy choice?

Not necessarily. When fat is removed from a food it is replaced -- more often than not with high amounts of sugar. Equally as bad is that many so-called 'diet foods' are full of artificial sweeteners, which can cause a host of health problems and have been linked to cancer.

7 Are sodium and salt the same?

Many people confuse sodium with salt. In fact, sodium only makes up a small portion of salt. Most labels only list sodium content, so how do we know how much salt is in our food? Where sodium is listed, multiply the figure by 2.5 to get the amount of salt. This is especially important for people trying to keep their blood pressure down.

8 What's GDA?

Many food manufacturers have started using 'guideline daily amounts' or GDAs as a way of helping people put the nutritional value of a particular food within context. GDAs are based on the amount of each nutrient an average person needs every day and information is given as a percentage of your recommended daily intake. They are usually based on someone eating 2,000kcal per day. For example, as a general guideline for someone who eats 2,000 calories per day, fat should be less than 70g. So, if a food has 35g of fat then it has 50pc of the guideline daily amount. I would encourage people to get to know this system as it's an easy and useful tool.

9 In what order are ingredients listed?

While it's important for people to become familiar with food labels it's of equal importance to remember that we need only worry about them in relation to processed foods.

Rather than obsess over the nutritional content between one food pack and another, we should really focus on getting back to basics and stick with natural whole foods as much as possible.

Processed foods, that is anything we don't make ourselves -- biscuits, crisps, pastries, ready meals etc -- should only ever be eaten in small amounts and considered an occasional treat.

Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy are You? on TV3. Elsa offers individual consultations and weight-loss courses. Visit www.elsajonesnutrition.ie