Laurann O'Reilly: Top tips for interpreting food labels and all you need to know...

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Laurann O’Reilly

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Laurann O'Reilly

One of the keys to eating well is understanding our food, the ingredients and being able to interpret the nutrition information of food products.

Thankfully both in Europe the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and in Ireland the Food Safety Authority (FSAI) help to ensure that this information is clear.

Here nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, helps to further explain how to interpret this information and how in understanding food labels, we can make informed choices about the foods that we purchase, allowing us to make healthier food choices

- The Ingredient Listing - The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) states that “prepacked foods with two or more ingredients must have a list of all the ingredients used in its production”.
These ingredients are then listed in order of weight, starting with the ingredient of the highest quantity.
Tip: This can be quite helpful in assisting your food choices, for instance if sugar is one of the highest ingredients listed, then the product is mostly sugar and probably not the best option.

- Allergies/Intolerances - As of December 2014 the EU made it mandatory for food companies to list the 14 common foods which individuals within the general population may be intolerant or have an allergy to. As a result, whenever any of these foods are used as an ingredient within a product, they must be clearly listed in bold (or a font which distinguishes it from the other ingredients) within the ingredient listing above. You may also find them listed as ‘contains’ followed by the name of the allergen.

The 14 allergens include: 1) Cereals containing gluten (spelt, wheat, barley, rye and oats, with exceptions), 2) Crustaceans (such as shellfish), 3) Eggs, 4) Fish (with exceptions), 5) Peanuts, 6) Soybeans (with exceptions), 7) Milk, 8) Nuts (including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecan nuts, brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts (with exceptions), 9) Celery, 10) Mustard, 11) Sesame seeds, 12) Sulphur dioxide (also known as sulphites) of a certain concentration, 13) Lupin (yellow legume seeds) and 14) Molluscs (such as shellfish and snails)
Tip: This is quite helpful for individuals with known allergies and intolerances to any of the above foods and can help in assisting in safer food choices.

- The Shelf Life - It’s important when buying your food products to understand how long they’ll last from a meal planning perspective, to prevent food waste but also to ensure that your health is protected from spoilt food.

1) Best Before Date – Also known as the ‘date of minimum durability’. The FSAI describes this as “the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties when properly stored” and applies to “canned, dried, ambient and frozen foods where quality is an issue rather than safety”. So, whilst the quality of the food may deteriorate after this date it doesn’t pose a health issue if eaten past this date.

2) Use By Date – Unlike the best before date, it’s important to consume these food products within this date as they can become a health risk. These foods according to the FSAI are “highly perishable and require refrigeration” and include products such as “milk, minced meat, fish and ready to eat salads”.

- The Nutrition Information - This is also known as the ‘nutrition declaration’. This is often a panel or grid on the side or back of packaging. According to the FSAI, it is mandatory requirement to provide the product’s nutrition information per 100g, which includes:

1) Energy – Measured in KJ (kilojoules) and kcal (kilocalories). This is what is says on the tin (or packaging), the energy content of the food product. This energy value is comprised of what are known as the ‘Macronutrients’, Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat. Tip: This helps us to monitor our energy intake and assess if a product is high or low in energy. Whilst we require a certain amount of energy in our diets, excess energy can result in weight gain. It also allows us to compare the energy values between certain food products.

2) Carbohydrates - Are our energy source, providing us with the fuel that we need to function and are stated in grams (g). Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, fibre, and starch. The label will tell you the total amount of carbohydrate, and then you will notice that it says ‘of which sugars’, which describes the total amount of sugars from all sources (which includes added sugars and natural sugars also known as ‘intrinsic’ sugars). You can identify if a food has added or natural sugars by checking the ingredient listing as mentioned above.

- The Sugar Content - A high sugar content is over 22.5g of total sugars per 100g, medium sugar content is between 5g-22.5g of total sugars per 100g and a low sugar content is less than 5g of total sugars or less per 100g. Tip: To calculate how many teaspoons of sugar are in a product, divide the ‘of which sugars’ number by 5, you may be surprised!

- Understanding Sugar Claims - It’s important to understand the terminology of sugar too such, with this guide from the INDI as 1) Sugar Free (no added or naturally occurring sugar), 2) No Added Sugar (no extra sugar added) and 3) Reduced Sugar (at least 25% less sugar than standard product).

3) Protein – Is required for recovery and repair and will be stated in grams (g).

4) Fat – Fat is often given a bad label, however we require a small amount of fat in the diet to absorb our ‘fat soluble vitamins’ A, D, E and K. You’ll notice ‘of which saturates’ under the fat section, it’s important to keep the saturated fat to a minimum.

Here is a guide on how to interpret the fat content of your food from SafeFood with low fat being 3g/100g (or less), medium fat being between 3-17.5g and high fat being greater than 17.5g. In terms of saturated fat, low saturated fat is 1.5g/100g (or less), medium between 1.5-5g and high saturated fat is over 5g.
Tip: The FSAI recommends that adults should try to opt for reduced or low fat milk, yogurts and cheeses where possible. It may be helpful to use this guide when choosing your food products.

- Understanding Fat Claims - It’s also important to understand the terminology of fat claims with this guide from the INDI stating that 1) Low Fat or 95 % Fat Free (less than 5g fat in 100g), 2) Low in Saturates (less than 3g saturated fat in 100g), 3) Virtually Fat Free (less than 0.3g fat in 100g) and 4) Reduced Fat (at least 25% less fat than standard product)

5) Salt – Research has found that excess salt in the diet can contribute to high blood pressure. A report by the FSAI in 2020, found that the daily salt intake of Irish adults was quite high at around 10g/day. Although the salt habit can be hard to shake, the recommended amount of dietary salt per day for adults is around 4g per day (a teaspoon). Foods which can be high in salt include processed meats as well as other processed foods, including certain soups (for instance tinned versions), some sauces, biscuits, cakes and pastries. High salt is more than 1.5g per 100g, moderate salt is 0.3g-1.5g per 100g and low salt is 0.3g salt or less per 100g. Tip: Try to avoid seasoning your foods with additional salt and use dried herbs and spices instead. Also keep an eye on the salt content of certain foods, particularly if you are monitoring your heart health.

- Portion Sizes - As mentioned above, the nutrition information is only required to be given per 100g/100ml, which may not be reflective of the actual portion size of the product, for example an adult yogurt portion size may be 125g. Whilst some companies choose to put additional measurements which reflect the actual portion, it’s important not to be confused by other products. For example, a bottle of fizzy orange may have the nutrition information of the 100ml measurement along with a 250ml measurement, however the full bottle may be 500ml and one is likely to consume the full bottle. Tip: When buying a food product, ensure that you consider the nutrition for portion size and not the standard 100g/100ml.

- Colour Coding - Some food products also display colour codes on the front of their products. SafeFood describes how this “shows at a glance if a food is high, medium or low in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt”. This works like a traffic light system with “low (green) – being the best choice, medium (amber) – being okay most of the time and high (red) – only to be chosen occasionally”. Tip: Keep an eye out for the colour coded products and opt for the green coded foods where possible.
Hopefully this guide will help you understand your food labels going forward and assist in helping you make informed and healthier food choices.

About Laurann: Laurann O’Reilly is qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. She has over 10 years’ experience including working community and clinical care, research, personalised nutrition consultations (dealing in healthy eating, weight loss, digestive health and sports nutrition), teaching and developing nutrition courses at FETEC level, as well as nutrition education talks and workshops (corporate wellness, schools, sports teams, public and private talks). For further information see www.nutritionbylaurann.ie  or contact Laurann at info@nutritionby.laurann.ie