Reading Food Labels

Updated: May 27

The Most Misleading Claims


Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy.

Here are some of the most common claims — and what they mean:


  • Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar.


  • Made with whole grains. These are most likely refined grains — unless the product is marked as whole grain.


  • Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.


  • Organic. This label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.


  • No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don't have added sugar doesn't mean they're healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.


  • Low-calorie. Low-calorie products have to have one-third fewer calories than the brand's original product. Yet, one brand's low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original.


  • Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients list.


  • Low carb diets. Recently low carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.


  • Made with whole grains. The product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list — if whole grains aren't in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible.


  • Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.


  • Gluten-free. This doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn't contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.


  • Fruit-flavored. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit — only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.


There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar or not.

These are:

Total fat

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

Sugars

High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Salt

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)


Some front-of-pack nutrition labels use red, amber and green colour coding.

Colour-coded nutritional information tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt:


  • red means high

  • amber means medium

  • green means low


In short, the more green on the label, the healthier the choice. If you buy a food that has all or mostly green on the label, you know straight away that it's a healthier choice.


Amber means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber on the label most of the time.


But any red on the label means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars, and these are the foods we should cut down on.


Try to eat these foods less often and in small amounts.


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