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Food labels – Part 2: Nutrition tables and list of ingredients

To know if a certain product is healthy for you, you need to read the food labels. In the last part we described what is the real meaning of “Light”, “no added sugar” and other labels on the package. This part will explain how to read the nutrition table and list of ingredients.

The nutrition table

The nutrition table describes the nutritional values of the product. How much calories and macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) are in a specific product. Usually there are two columns with numbers, one is “per 100g” and the other one is “per portion”. Be aware that the portion listed on the product is not always the portion you are going to eat from it. For example, the portion on a food label of a chocolate spread is 15g, but most people put much more than that on their sandwich.

The amounts of salt in a product might be confusing. The general recommendation is to consume no more than 2300mg of sodium a day which is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt, but on the packages you sometimes find “salt”, sometimes “sodium”, and sometimes both but with a different number. Sodium(Na) is not the same as Salt (NaCl), but a part of it, 40%, to be accurate. So to calculate how much sodium you consumed, check the package and double the amount of salt with 0.4.

The nutrition table will tell you the numbers, but it doesn’t give any information on where this nutrient actually comes from. For example, nutrition table of a carton  of milk will reveal that there is sugar inside. This is because milk naturally contains sugar (lactose) and not necessarily not because food companies added sugar to it. This is the reason you shouldn’t settle on reading the nutrition table alone. Take a look also in the list of ingredients.

List of ingredients

Most people are focused on the quantity of calories and macronutrients their food, and forget that also the quality matters. The list of ingredients is more than just numbers, it tell you what the food actually contains.

The ingredients in the list are ordered by the amount the product. If the word “sugar” is one of the first on your cereal box, it might not be as healthy as you think. A less obvious example is the one of bread. If “enriched bleached flour” is the first ingredient to appear on your whole wheat bread, there is a chance that this bread doesn’t contain that much whole wheat. As long that there is more than 1% whole wheat in it, the manufacturer can call it “whole bread”. Same goes for “12 grain bread”: it’s enough to have 12 single grains of different types to call it 12 grain bread.

If the list of ingredients contains words that remind you of chemistry lesson is usually not a good sign. For me, the rule of thumb is: The list of ingredients is preferably as short as possible and contain only words you can pronounce.

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