What should I look for on a label?
Product labels have information on fat, saturates (or saturated fat, the “bad cholesterol raising” fat), carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt content. As with calorie counts, they’re usually listed per 100 grams (or, if it’s a liquid, per 100 milliliters) and sometimes by portion. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food come first. If the first few ingredients are cream, butter or oil, then the food is high in saturated fats. Sugar comes in many different guises (glucose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, etc) and if any of them are listed near beginning of the ingredient list it suggests the product is high in sugar.
What is meant by “energy”?
This is worth paying attention to if you’re trying to lose weight, or not put it on. It’s usually listed in kcals, which is short for “kilocalories”, which is another word for calories. It might also be listed in kJs, short for “kilojoules”, the metric measurement of calories. To find the energy content in kilojoules, multiply the calorie figure by 4.2. To find the energy content in calories divide the kilojoules figure by 4.2. The label will usually tell you how many calories are contained in 100 grams or 100 milliliters of the food or drink, so you can compare and contrast the calorie content of different products. Many products also state the calories in “one portion” of the food, although the manufacturer’s idea of a portion may be different from your idea of a portion and quite likely considerably smaller.
So, what does the average person need in their diet?
As a rough guide, the average man needs 2500kcal (10,500kJ) to maintain his weight, and the average woman needs 2000kcal (8,400kJ), but this will also depend on other factors, such your height, age and how much exercise you’re getting.
Making sense of food labels also depends on knowing a bit about the guidelines for recommended daily intakes of fat, saturates, sugar and salt. Some food products include reference intakes (sometimes called daily intakes or recommended intakes) in the labeling. They aren’t targets, but a useful guide.
Unless stated otherwise, these values are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity:
Energy: 8,400 kJ/2000kcal
Total fat: 70g
Total sugars: 90g
Total fats: 90g
What if I don’t have time to stand around in the supermarket working all this out?
Try using the following guidelines on whether a food is high or low (or somewhere in between) in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
Sugars, sometimes listed as "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)"
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)