Pre-prepared food and drinks are great for convenience but can contain a lot more fat, sugar and salt than we realise. The great news is that food labels have all the information you need to make a healthier choice. Here are a few tips on what to look out for when you’re shopping:
Nearly every product has a table listing the energy and nutritional content of the food and drink. Look for the values per 100g so you can compare values between different products e.g.
Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients always come first. For example if the first few ingredients are high-fat ingredients (e.g. butter, oil or cream) then the food is likely to be high in fat. When looking for high sugar foods, remember there are lots of different names for added sugars (e.g. glucose syrup, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, barley malt extract, molasses, corn syrup, honey, fruit puree/concentrate etc) so check the label carefully!
Red, amber and green colour-coding (traffic lights)
This tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The more greens on the label, the healthier the choice. Try to eat foods with reds on the label less often.
Unfortunately, not all products use colour-coding so we’ve produced a handy Food Label Card that tells you what is red, amber and green for the different nutrients. Simply check the amount of fat, saturated fat (saturates), sugars or salt per 100g and compare it with the food card!
You might also like to try the FoodSwitch UK app – scan the product’s barcode and instantly see colour-coding for over 80,000 food and drink products. The app also recommends similar but healthier alternatives.
Reference intakes (RIs) have replaced GDAs (guideline daily amounts). They provide a useful guide to the amount of energy and nutrients the average adult needs each day (based on the requirements of an average female eating 2,000 calories per day). The %RI tells you how much of the daily maximum is in a specified portion of the product. Remember there are no RIs for children and not all manufacturers put RIs on the label.
Cooking from scratch with raw, unprocessed ingredients is the easiest way control what you’re eating and could save you money too. If you’d like to get some healthy eating tips, improve your cooking skills or get new recipe ideas why not sign up for a FREE local cooking course or visit our recipe pages?
Are ‘light’ or ‘lite’ versions really healthier?
To say a food is ‘light’ or ‘lite’, it must be at least 30% lower in one particular value (e.g. energy or fat) compared with the standard product. So the label on a ready meal might say ‘light: 30% less fat’.
But, to understand if the product is healthier overall you’ll need to look at the other nutrients in the product as well. Often when the fat content is lowered, the sugar content is increased (and vice versa), you should also look at the amount of salt.
In some cases, there may be little difference in the total energy content of the standard and light product (unless the claim is ‘light: 30% less energy’). Also, ‘30% less’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘low in’ (see below).
What is the difference between ‘low fat’ and ‘reduced fat’?
To say a food is ‘low fat’, it must contain no more than 3g fat per 100g.
To say a food is ‘reduced fat’, it must be at least 30% lower in fat than the standard product. This doesn’t necessarily mean the reduced fat food is low in fat, as the standard product may be high in fat in the first place e.g. standard product = 30g fat per 100g and reduced fat product = 21g fat per 100g (a high fat product contains more than 17.5g fat per 100g).
What is the difference between ‘low sugar’ and ‘reduced sugar’?
To say a food is ‘low sugar’, it must contain no more than 5g sugars per 100g.
To say a food is ‘reduced sugar’, it must be at least 30% lower in sugars than the standard product. This doesn’t necessarily mean the reduced sugar food is low in sugars, as the standard product may be high in sugar in the first place e.g. standard product = 25g sugar per 100g and reduced sugar product = 17.5g sugar per 100g (a high sugar product contains more than 22.5g sugar per 100g).
What does ‘no added sugar’ mean?
This means the food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient, but the food may contain sugars that are found naturally in fruit and milk e.g. ‘No added sugar muesli’ contains raisins and milk powder. However, we don’t need to cut down on fruit and milk, it is the foods containing added sugars (e.g. cakes, sweets, sugary drinks, sugar/chocolate coated breakfast cereals, sauces with added sugar) that we need to cut down on.
‘No added sugar’ products may also contain sweeteners.
What is the difference between ‘low salt’ and ‘reduced salt’?
To say a food is ‘low salt’, it must contain no more than 0.3g salt per 100g.
To say a food is ‘reduced salt’, it must be at least 25% lower in salt than the standard product. This doesn’t necessarily mean the reduced salt food is low in salt, as the standard product may be high in salt in the first place e.g. standard product = 2g salt per 100g and reduced salt product = 1.5g salt per 100g (a high salt product contains more than 1.5g salt per 100g).
For more information on salt and its effects on health check out our article.