understanding food labels

Understanding Food Labels

A key skill to master, if you wish to control your waistline, is understanding food labels.

In this article we are going to breakdown how to do this. We'll use a common food as our example: good old Heinz Baked Beans - in tomato sauce no less!

understanding food labels

1. Understanding Food Labels - Ingredient List

Firstly, we'll start by reviewing the ingredients that make up the food. These are listed in descending order of predominance by weight. This means that the ingredient in the product that weighs the most, is listed first.

understanding food labels

Also, if the ingredient is highlighted on the label e.g. Baked Beans and Tomato in our example, then you will see the % that these ingredients make up in the product.

From the label above, the ingredients are:

Beans (51%), Tomatoes (34%), Water, Sugar, Spirit Vinegar, Modified Cornflour, Salt, Spice Extracts, Herb Extract, Gluten free.​

This example is pretty straight forward but for more heavily processed foods, the list of ingredients can be extensive. There can be a number of ingredients that are unfamiliar or that you do not understand.

To cope with this, I recommend these two approaches:

  1. My prefered solution (that I use) is to build up a list of 'Trusted' supplier products. So that I can walk into a store and look for example - Fage Greek Yoghurt, put it in my basket without needing to review the label. I know what's in it as I've done the review before.
  2. Create a red flag list of ingredients that would prevent you from buying a product. You can then use this to review a new product and assess whether it will be a good choice for you. This, then in turn, can feed into creating the list of 'Trusted' products mentioned above.​

Some Sample Red Flags Could Be:

  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Added sugars (look for hidden sources like syrups)
  • Artificial colourings & sweeteners
  • Tinned products not labelled as BPA free
  • Fish that is farmed
  • Gluten
  • Non-organic
  • High sodium etc.​

Here is the full nutrition label for Heinz Baked Beans

(it's a European can so has the English first then other languages).

understanding food labels

2. Understanding Food Labels - Serving Size

understanding food labels

​The first place to start is to understand what serving size the nutrition facts relate to. In this example, Heinz have listed a serving size of 100g. 

At this point, it's useful to compare that serving size to the size of the item.

So in this example, the can is 415g so this serving size would be just less than 1/4 of the can.

This gives us an idea of what we are looking at. i.e. if you are going to eat half a can you'll need to double the quoted numbers as you'll effectively be eating what Heinz's considers to be 2 portions.

3. ​Understanding Food Labels - Calories

understanding food labels

Moving on with our review, we can consider the number of calories that this item will provide. For this we use the kcal number and not the kJ.

In this example, a 1/4 of a can of the beans will give us 79 calories.

You can then work out whether that figure fits in with your calorie budget for the day (based on your BMR and activity level). If you don't know how to do this I recommend getting a copy of our eBook - The Fat Loss Starter Kit which covers how to calculate your daily calorie budget.

N.B. You may still want to consider a high calorie food, if it provides a lot of nutrients.​ An example would be avocados, which although very calorie dense are also nutrient dense as well. 

4. Understanding Food Labels - ​Fats

understanding food labels

The amount of fat can be a little tricky to assess. An item can be high fat and still be healthy. It really depends on the types of fat. To make an informed decision you can review the ingredients list.

We need to actively avoid Trans Fats, so any product with ingredients listed as: Trans Fat, Hydrogenated or using Shortening should be avoided.  ​

Most of us already get more than our daily requirement of saturated fats, so choosing products with low saturated fat totals, would be a good move for most of us.​

5. Understanding Food Labels - ​Carbs

understanding food labels

The overall carbohydrate total is listed and is also broken down to show what amount sugar makes up of this figure.

You may wish to consider this figure and how it fits in with your overall dieting strategy. e.g if you are following  a low-carb or high-carb diet.

Although the amount of grams of sugar is listed it doesn't distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (e.g. fructose in fruit) and added sugar (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup). Remember to cross reference with the ingredients list to see where these are coming from and whether they are acceptable to you.

6. Understanding Food Labels - ​Protein

understanding food labels

​Protein is a key macro nutrient which most people don't consume in sufficient quantities. It's especially important to consume a high protein diet when looking to: lose body fat and build muscle. This section on the label shows how many grams of protein will be provided by the portion size.

In our example the 100g serving of beans will provide 4.7g of protein.

7. Understanding Food Labels - ​Fibre

understanding food labels

There are two types of fibre:

  1. ​Soluble - aids lower our blood cholesterol
  2. Insoluble - bulks up stool volume and aids digestion.

Both types are required for good health and disease prevention (basically - it keeps your 'plumbing' in good order).

According to the Institute of Medicine we should consume 19 to 38 grams of fibre per day (varies on age and gender). So you can use this to guide your product selections.

​Understanding Food Labels - Tips

  1. ​Consider what is the most important information for you to make a choice on whether to purchase a product.
  2. Give yourself time to review the labels on unfamiliar products when at the store.
  3. Ask yourself, am I being swayed towards buying this product by the claims made on the front of the packaging.
  4. Look to make whole, unprocessed foods the pillars of your diet. If you have two comparable products and one has an ingredient list that is much shorter - then consider the one with less additions the better choice.
  5. Use common sense. If you are buying something simple - such as say porridge oats - should it really have anything other than porridge oats in the packet?
  6. ​Although it's useful to understand and have a consideration for the calories contained in your foods, it isn't necessary for controlling your weight. Our coaching systems do not require you to count calories and use simple hand measuring techniques instead.
  7. Give high consideration to the nutrient quality of the foods you are buying. Whilst a heavily processed product may be low in calories if it's devoid of nutrient value then it won't be providing much to your overall well being.

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of how to decide which products to leave on the shelf and which to put in your basket.

Having good quality, nutrient dense foods, readily available to you is a cornerstone of achieving a healthy diet.

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Further reading:

Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 1

Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 2

Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 3

Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 4

Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 5​

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