Week 7: Interpreting Food Labels



The objectives of this webinar are to teach you how to describe a food label, interpret food labels correctly, empower you to make informed choices of foods and identify other important information on food labels.

Food labels are Nutrition Facts Tag on packaged food. It breaks down the number of calories and nutrients per serving of the food. The law requires food labels to carry certain information to enable consumers make informed food choices. Thus, making it easier to compare the nutrition of similar products. Food labels are not meant for only people with allergies. It is important to know how and why foods are labeled as they are so that you know what you are eating. 

You can improve your health by learning how to read food labels. The first rule is that the content of the food pack should be real food. Check the ingredients, they should be food that you can recognize. 

The following definitions are important in interpreting food labels. 

Enriched: Foods that are enriched with nutrients that have been lost during processing. 

Fortified: Nutrients were added that were not present before processing. Certain nutrients are added to foods in order to meet the nutrition requirements of the target population it is meant for. 

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA): The average daily intake of nutrients required by most healthy people to prevent deficiencies; to optimize their health and avoid consuming too much of a nutrient.      

Kilojoules and calories are both units of energy where 1 calorie = 4.2 kilojoules. 

Fat spreads may contain vegetable and marine fat. Marine fat is not derived from whales or dolphins, but from oily fish.

Fat free means less than 0.5g fat per 100g or 100ml. E.g., Fat free milk is 0.5 grams of fat/250ml of milk. 

Low fat means less than 3g of fat per 100g or 100ml. E.g., 2% or low-fat milk means milk that contains 5 grams of fat per 250ml milk rather than the usual 8 grams of fat. 

Reduced fat means at least 25% less fat than the standard product.  

Food additive: Any substance that is not commonly consumed as a foodstuff itself but is added for technological purposes in manufacturing to assist with making foods more stable during preparation and storage.

Sugar free: means the product contains less than 0.5 g of sugars per 100g or 100ml of the product.

No added sugar means no additional sugar was used in the manufacturing of the product. Sucrose, glucose, fructose, galactose and lactose are different types of sugars. 

Food label, Product Name and Ingredients

The name must be as descriptive as possible. The minimum size of lettering on labels should be 0.75mm for easy read. The volume/weight of products must be stated.  

Pre – packed food (excluding bakery/meat/ vegetables) show a list of the ingredients that went into it. Food ingredients should not be in a foreign language

Ingredients: The ingredients are usually listed in descending order of weight. The list shows whether the product contains ingredients you may wish to avoid, such as lactose and egg. In some cases, a category name may be used instead of actual name. e.g., colourant. Food with a long list of ingredients will likely clog your engine (body). A long list indicates that the food is processed and is not healthy for you. The less ingredients, the better. Some ingredients have sub ingredients in brackets.

Nutrition Panel: By law, if a food is making a claim, for example “high in protein”, “rich in roughage”, “low in fat”, “contains vitamins and iron”, it MUST provide the details of its nutrient analysis. If the food manufacturer is not making any claims, then no nutrient analysis is necessary.  Some foods however, do provide the added nutrition information.  Provision of nutritional information, specifically relating to fat, fiber, sodium and energy, is encouraged as it may help consumers to practice healthy eating habits.

The nutrition information is usually in table form and provides the type of nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, energy or kilojoules, vitamins and minerals) the food will provide. The amount of each nutrient available in a serving and in 100 grams or 100ml.The amount usually written in front of calories is not the total calories in the bag. It is calories per serving.  Know how many servings of food are in a pack and bear the number of servings in mind when eating. Don’t just consider the calories per serving. Multiply that figure by the number of servings to get the total calories. If you see 200 calories and 2.5 servings, the total calorie is 500 calories. The low number of calories displayed boldly is a marketing strategy for companies to make you feel that the calorie is low.

SERVING SIZE (points to what makes a serving of that particular food)

The food must provide a recommended serving size to allow you to obtain the full benefit of the nutrients in the food. If a package has 8 servings and you eat the whole thing, you are eating 8 times the number of calories, carbs, fat, etc., shown on the label. Know the type of fuel you are burning. Fat, CHO or Protein. 

Nutrition Panel

Carbohydrate: Total Carbohydrate(CHO) shows the types of carbohydrate in the food, including sugar and fiber. Choose foods with more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, lower calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Avoid trans fat. CHO are easily burnt if you are involved in active physical activity or exercise most of the time; however, if you are sedentary, it gets stored. Most of us therefore should avoid refined CHO. Choose healthier foods with less than 20g of CHO per serving. Under CHO, you would see dietary fibre. Dietary Fibre is good. It enhances digestion, lowers cholesterol and enhances weight management etc. The sugar content should be low. Sugar is linked to several diseases and health problems including weight gain etc. Low fibre and more CHO are dangerous because the CHO would still turn to sugar. The ingredients would help you to interpret the nutrient content correctly. Most people should not consume more than 100g of CHO per day. 

FAT: Large calories are present in fat. When choosing food, select those that have less and healthy fat like fish and nuts. The amount written as total fat like 8g is the amount of fat in one serving of the food therefore total would be obtained by multiplying with the number of servings. However, the percentage written on the right-hand side in front of each nutrient is the percentage of the nutrient available in one serving out of the amount required for a 2000 calories diet. Fat is essential for the body, in a 2000 calorie diet while trans-fat should be less than 1%. There are many foods that contain healthy fat like peanuts, avocado, coconut, fish and egg. If this is more than the values above, it is not healthy. Some fats are not written but they are good for consumption. They are less of a concern since they are generally healthy. Monounsaturated fats, poly unsaturated fats, omega 3 fatty acids, omega 6 FA. Saturated fat is not as bad as once thought. What is bad is trans-fat (Partially hydrogenated oil). How fatty is your fuel? You should not consume more than 80g of fat per day. Average of 20 to 30g per meal. 

Protein: Premium food for the body is high in protein. It provides good energy levels, keeps your weight steady and helps the body to repair itself. Foods that are high in protein provide better satisfaction from the meal. Protein improves metabolism and promotes lean tissue. Your weight can give you a rough idea of the amount of protein needed per day. It should be 80% of the value of your weight. 

Vitamins and Minerals: Sodium – Check the percentage of expected daily intake. If 25 %, it means one serving contains 25%, hence 2.5 serving contain 62.5%. Processed foods are generally high in sodium

Vitamins and minerals amount are usually terribly low. We should rather focus on vegetables and fruits to meet the vitamins and minerals requirements respectively. 

Verifying Claims: When a claim is made that a food contains vitamins and iron, the food must provide at least 15% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).  If a food claims that it is a rich source of a vitamin (like iron), then it must provide at least 30% of the RDA. 

Source of fibre, it should contain at least 2.5g of dietary fibre per 100g.  A product high in fibre should contain at least 5g of dietary fibre per 100g. 

No claim may be made that a foodstuff is free of a particular substance if all other foodstuffs in the same class or category are free of such substances. For example, vegetable oil should not have a label of ‘Cholesterol free’ because no plant-based oil has cholesterol.             

Storage and Cooking Instructions: Storage instructions are only obligatory for frozen and chilled products. Some manufacturers recommend storage conditions to ensure the preservation of the product. Following storage and cooking instructions helps to ensure that the product tastes best and is safe to eat.  When fresh produce shows signs of discoloration or wilting, it is easy to spot. However, there are many foods wherein it is impossible to distinguish between safe and unsafe. Following preparation and cooking instructions, ensures that food tastes its best and protects you against possible illness. Recommended defrosting and cooking times are determined to ensure that any harmful bacteria or other substances are destroyed before eating the food.   

Instructions for use and Best Before Date: The dates marked on food labels are useful in protecting us against food which may be unfit to eat as a result of a long storage period. These instructions are there to make sure that the food tastes its best and protects the consumer against possible illness. By the date, the food may not be dangerous, but the risk of chemical and/or microbiological deterioration has started to increase. Fruit juice, for example, may still be drinkable, but it will not taste as fresh and the colour may be darker. 

Why are some foods not labelled: Foods such as eggs, bread, unprocessed fruit and vegetables, one – bite sweets and foods (including my favorite take – aways) that are prepared and sold where they are eaten, for obvious reasons, do not have to carry full labels. 

STANDARD PRODUCTS: Carbonated water, vinegar, beet and some dairy products follow a standard recipe (so as to qualify to be called carbonated beverage etc.) set by regulations and therefore do not have to list their ingredients.    

Additives, Preservatives and Colourants: Some additives are preservatives that make the food stay longer. e.g., sulphur dioxide and benzoic acid. They are generally safe but few people may react to them.

Antioxidant: Prevent food that contains fat, oil, fruit/fruit juice from becoming rancid after it has been opened.

Emulsifiers and stabilizers: ensure that ingredients like oil and water mix together that would normally separate. 

Thickeners are used to give body to foods. The commonest gelling agent is pectin – in ice cream.

Colourants make food more colourful and appetizing. Tartrazine, is one of the most commonly used colourants. 

Others: Flavour Enhancers, Flavourings, Enzymes and others are safe. MSG contains less sodium than salt. No proven side effect. Additives such as specific preservatives and flavour enhancers like MSG are listed to alert people who may be intolerant of them. Ingredients derived from milk or egg are indicated with those words in parenthesis after the ingredient name, e.g., Lecithin (egg) or Whey Powder (milk). This list will probably be extended in the future to include more allergens such as soya, wheat products and peanuts.

Calories per gram of nutrient can be at the bottom of each Nutrition label. They are standard figures. Fat 9g, CHO: 4g, protein: 4g. therefore for every 10g of fat, you would get 90 calories, 10g of CHO and Protein, 40 calories.

Avoid Processed Foods. The gold standard for additive free eating is to eat foods that have undergone the minimum amount of processing. Building your daily food intake around unrefined grain products like wholewheat bread, rice, unrefined breakfast cereals and fresh fruit and vegetables with a moderate intake of meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, you should be able to limit your intake of additives to a minimum. Organically grown foods describe how some fresh and processed foods are grown or produced, typically with little or no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Despite the claims, no scientific evidence shows that organically grown foods are healthier or safer for health.         


Avoid processed foods, eat mostly natural foods. If you don’t have a choice, read the food labels to choose healthier options. Ensure that the ingredients are real foods. Foods with few ingredients are safer and healthier.