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Food labels provide a wide range of information about foods; understanding them correctly is important to enable healthy food choices to be made. The laws surrounding food labelling changed in December 2014. This leaflet will explain what information is contained within food labels and how to interpret and use it to compare different products.
Health claims on packets
Health claims can make it easy to see product details at a glance if you are trying to change your diet. Previously the rules on health claims made it very difficult to be sure what certain terms meant but now there are specific rules that help to prevent manufacturers using misleading claims. Any claims made about the nutrition and health benefits of a product must be based on reliable scientific evidence.
‘Light’ or ‘Lite’
To carry this claim the product must be at least 30% lower in one typical value (calories or fat) than that manufacturer’s standard version of the product in the same range. It can be surprising to see that there is very little difference in foods that carry the claim and those that don’t. For example; one brand of crisps marketed as ‘light’ may contain the same total fat (or lower) than the standard version of another brand.
A product containing this claim must contain no more than 3g of fat per 100g of solids (or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids).
‘No added sugar’ or ‘unsweetened’
These terms refer to extra sugars that could have been added as an ingredient. The presence of these claims on food packaging does not mean that the product is sugar free as it may still contain ingredients that are naturally sweet such as fruit juice or milk.
Manufacturers are unable to make specific claims about a product such as its ability to treat, prevent or cure diseases. However they can state that the product may have a general health benefit provided that there is good quality scientific evidence behind it.
Claims that can be made about products are set out in EU legislation e.g.
o Beta-glucans contribute to maintenance of normal blood cholesterol
o Calcium is needed for maintenance of normal bones
There is no need to eat foods labelled as ‘suitable for diabetes’ as these have not been proven to be healthier than standard versions, and may be more expensive.
If a nutrition claim is made e.g. high in iron it is compulsory to include information about that nutrient in the nutritional tables found on that product.
UK manufacturers must provide nutritional information on almost all packaged foods and drinks (this is usually found on the back or side of a packet). Nutrients are listed in a certain order; energy [in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal)], fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. The term ‘sodium’ is no longer permitted alone unless the equivalent as salt is also given. The information given must be per 100g or 100ml of the food but can also be given per portion or per serving or as a percentage of reference nutrient intakes. When comparing products remember to look at the nutritional information provided per 100g/100ml as manufacturers may have different opinions on what constitutes a ‘suitable serving’.
Total Fat and Saturated Fat
There are two main types of fat in foods; unsaturated and saturated.
On a food label fat will be displayed as the total fat content first and then the amount of the total fat that is saturated will be displayed below.
Try to choose more food and drinks that contain less than 3g of total fat per 100g/100ml and less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g/100ml.
Unsaturated fat (including mono- and poly-unsaturated fat) is healthier for you than saturated fat but will still contain the same total calories. Try to choose unsaturated fats where possible but aim to lower your total fat intake too.
Carbohydrates and Sugars
The term carbohydrate is used to describe both starchy foods e.g. rice, potatoes, pasta or flour and also simple carbohydrates e.g. sugars contained within foods. Values for total carbohydrates (sugar + starch) and just sugars appear on food labels.
It is not compulsory for manufacturers to include information about fibre. However choosing products containing higher fibre carbohydrates where possible will have additional health benefits. Examples of higher fibre options are wholegrain products.
If you eat or drink a large amount of sugar it will raise your blood glucose more rapidly compared to starchier foods. Therefore, for maximal glycaemic control and health benefits you should aim to reduce your sugar intake as much as possible. Higher frequency consumption of sugar will also increase the risk of developing tooth decay.
Try to choose food and drink that contain 5g of sugar or less per 100g/100ml.
Sugar may also be listed as the following on ingredients labels: Glucose, Dextrose, Fructose, Treacle, Brown Sugar, Molasses, Lactose, Sucrose, Maltose, Malt Extract, Honey, Invert sugar, Syrup, Cane sugar, Unrefined sugar.
A diet high in salt can cause high blood pressure leading to heart disease or stroke.
Try to choose food and drinks that contain 0.3g or less of salt per 100g.
75% of the salt that we eat comes from pre-packaged foods so check the labels to
compare between brands and make the healthiest choice.
Ingredients must be listed on pre-packaged foods. This list is always in descending order of the amount contained within the product. Therefore, if the first few items in the list are ingredients that are high in fat/sugar than it would be better to swap to a healthier alternative.
Manufactures must emphasise 14 major food allergies on ingredients lists. These are: Cereals containing gluten, Peanuts, Tree, Nuts, Fish, Crustaceans e.g. prawns, Soya beans, Milk, Sesame,
Molluscs e.g. clams, Mustard, Eggs, Celery, Sulphur dioxide, Lupin.
Where these allergens are not clear from the ingredient list there will be a reference to the allergen next to the ingredient e.g. Casein (milk) or tofu (soya). The way that the 14 allergens are emphasised on ingredients lists varies between manufactures from highlighting, bold, italics, contrasting text, CAPITLISING TEXT, and underlining. Use of statements such as ‘contains nuts’ are no longer allowed except on products that do not have an ingredients list. References to gluten are also no longer allowed; instead any cereals that contain gluten will be emphasised in the ingredients list e.g. wheat, rye, barley.
Always look for ‘may contain’ warnings for the potential risk of cross contamination with other allergens.
RI means reference intake; this has replaced the term ‘recommended daily amount’ or RDA. The %RI tells you how much of you daily healthy maximum requirements are contained within the portion. The %RI values used on food labels are based on an average sized adult doing an average amount of physical activity. As individuals vary they should be used as a guide rather than a target amount:
Energy 2000kcal; Fat 70g; Saturates 20g; Sugars 90g; Salt 6g. (1 kcal = 4.2kJ).
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