It's easy to miss the nutritional information displayed on most food packets sold in the UK. But pay attention to these labels, and they can be the key to a healthier diet.
Take a look at any food label, and you'll see a list of ingredients. The ingredients list is given in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always come first. That means that if the first few ingredients are high-fat ingredients, such as cream, butter or oil, then the food in question is high-fat food.
Most food labels also contain a nutritional analysis panel. This will usually tell you how many calories there are in a single portion and also how many calories are contained in 100 grams. If you're trying to lose weight, then it's especially useful to know how many calories are contained in one portion of the food you're looking at. But be aware: the manufacturer's concept of a portion may be different from yours.
The nutritional analysis panel will also tell you the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt per 100 grams. The Food Standards Agency has issued useful guidelines to help you decide if a food is high in fat or sugar.
- Low fat = less than three grams of fat per 100 grams.
- High fat = more than 20 grams of fat per 100 grams.
- Low sugar = less than five grams of sugar per 100 grams.
- High sugar = more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams.
Thanks to the introduction of traffic light labels on the front of many food packets, you can find an even easier guide to fat, sugar and salt content (see below).
Remember, a healthy diet is all about balance. You can learn more about balancing your diet by reading our Food and diet section.
At the supermarket
Now you're ready to start reading labels when you shop for food.
If you're buying ready meals, check the food labels to see how your choices stack up when it comes to calories count, and fat, salt and sugar content. 'Healthier option' ranges are usually lower in calories and fat than standard ranges.
But remember that even 'healthier' ready meals will probably be higher in fat and calories than the home-made equivalent. If you make the meal yourself, you could save money too.
If you're looking for a snack, try swapping your regular snack for something lower in calories.
Most chocolate bars contain between 250 and 450 calories. An apple, on the other hand, is sweet, filling and typically contains just 50 calories.
Traffic light labels
Until recently, finding out the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in packaged food meant you had to try to make sense of the information on the backs of packets. That isn't always convenient, especially if you're in a hurry.
But now, most of the big supermarkets and many food manufacturers are using a new front-of-pack food labelling system that uses traffic light colours. This gives an at-a-glance guide to the five key factors:
- Fat content
- Saturated fat content
- Sugar content
- Salt content
Red means high, amber means medium and green means low. And, because it’s on the front of food packets, you can see it immediately.
But what does it mean? In short, the more green lights, the healthier the choice.
If you buy a food that has all or mostly green lights, you know straight away that it's a healthier choice. An amber light means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber lights most of the time. But a red light means the food is high in fat, salt or sugar, and these are the foods we should be cutting down on. Try to eat these foods only on occasion.
As well as using the traffic light colours, the labels tell you how many grams of total fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt there are in a serving. And if you do want more detailed nutritional information, the nutrition panels are still there on the backs of packets.
You can learn more about food labels and healthy eating at the food labels section of the Food Standards Agency's Eatwell site.