Navigating the Food Label

This may seem a random topic, however I cannot emphasize the importance of food labelling. Labels are the source of information consumers have in the complicated food chain, and arguably our only source of control in how we select our food. Without reading them how can you know what you are really consuming? Navigating food labels allows you to gain greater control of your health.


I know I sound super geeky, but embrace it… A few years ago I studied labelling as part of my final dissertation and there is one thing I can assure you: about it: the food industry really cares about the info smothering food packaging… every year millions are spent lobbying government to enable industry to stake its claim on its preferred ‘blurry’ labelling. They do not want their Mars Bars typecast in the ‘naughty’ (red) list! Because labelling is such a mine field and without a standard approach (albeit there is positive progress in the traffic light system) I thought it would be helpful to provide some advice. Therefore this simple guide will allow you to select the correct information you need when scouring the sea of confusing words on the back of a packet!

Lets take your typical nutritional info:


The first thing I always consider, as a sugar quitter, is the nutritional table. The average person zooms straight to the calorie (kcal) count, however I advise not to use this as your baseline of whether a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is known that not all calories have the same effect e.g. a calorie from maple syrup will make you pile on the pounds more than an avocado’s calorie. Because of this, calories are somewhat void. Take for example the fact that diet foods can be low in calories but packed with sugar – where is the nutritional benefit?

Instead consider the ‘of which sugars’ (surprise!) under the ‘Carbohydrates’ heading. This section will inform you of the amount of sugar in the product, and how much sugar per 100g compiles the product. For example in Nutella per 100g is 56g, which is 56%! Just WOW. As a general rule, if you are quitting sugar aim for products which contain less than 6g per 100g. This rules out the majority of sweet processed foods, but your body will thank you for it.

The other part of the nutritional table worth a mention is ‘Sodium’. This is the salt content of the product. It is important not to consume excessive salt due to its linkage to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Aim for products which have >0.5g sodium per 100g.

The final part to mention regarding the nutritional label is often the product’s %GDA per portion is provided. This is a controversial one, as the energy intake is based on an ‘average’ adult… how the heck can you define an ‘average’ human being?! The measure is arguable void, as again it is based on calories (and not all calories are equal) and does not take into account an individuals age, sex, activity, height etc. You are welcome to consider it, but I wouldn’t follow it as gospel….

Now the other vital aspect is the simple ingredients list. My advice for this is far from rocket science: if you don’t recognise the ingredient then its probably not good for you. Great examples of this are the numerous flavourings, stabilisers etc added to products. Linked to this is the length of the ingredients list, if you pick up a jar of sauce and there are 50 ingredients you know its super processed.

The next vital thing to check is the order of the ingredients list. The ingredients are ordered by highest volume to lowest, so the first in the list makes up the biggest proportion of the product (the amount is often listed by percentage).

  • If the first ingredient is sugar, step away! I tend to avoid products which have sugar as one of their top 5
  • The sweet stuff may not be listed as ‘sugar’ – beware anything with ‘ose’ at the end e.g. fructose or sucrose (minus ‘glucose’ or ‘dextrose’) or ‘syrup’ after
  • Be mindful of other ‘versions’ of sugar such as agave, fruit puree or honey
  • High fructose corn syrup = just don’t go there or get me started…
  • If a drink has sugar anywhere in the ingredients list don’t drink it

Final tip: beware of the ‘no added sugar’ on a label. This often refers to typical table sugar, so the product will instead contain agave syrup/honey/maple syrup/molasses/corn syrup/fruit juice. Don’t be fooled, it’s a marketing trick. This is exactly why those ‘healthy snacks’ are not actually healthy.

With all of that said, go attack those supermarket aisles with new tricks up your sleeves! And finally, please ask any questions if you are still unsure… I am always happy to help.


4 thoughts on “Navigating the Food Label

  1. Like your style of writing and the content! Felt you have a major point with the food companies. Really does make you think. And thats a good thing. We need a standardised easy to understand system. Surely we have the legal right to know exactly what we are eating presented in a easy to understand format.

  2. Pingback: Is your 2015 resolution to cut down on sugar? | Beyond the Sugar Veil

  3. Hi Jess I really enjoy your emails/blog.
    I have been an avid label reader since I stacked shelves in Sainsburys in 1983. And now with my son and his new wife, I try to a avoid the nasties. But my question is. Surely I don’t need to avoid my favourite honey?
    I have a spoonful in my tea.

    Lots of love
    Esther x

    • Hi Esther… Happy New Year! I am so glad you are enjoying my posts 🙂 It is so important to read labels, I am completely there with you, I spend a long time doing my food shop because of it! Having a bit of honey everyday is completely fine if the rest of your diet is low sugar – it certainly won’t do you harm 🙂 Take care xxx

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