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How to read food labels effortlessly

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If you go to supermarkets it is quite easy to get overwhelmed by the number of similar food items available in the market. Most of these products claim to be the best healthy option available in market. Every product on the shelf claims to be better than its competition and often creates confusion. With so many products available in the market, how exactly do you find out the right product for your family? Well, the answer lies in the food labels. In this article we will help you understand on how to read food labels effortlessly and correctly. This information will help you make informed decision next time you visit the supermarket.

So, it is Saturday and you are in the supermarket. While shopping you remember that you wanted to buy some Orange juice for yourself. Well, let’s go to the Beverages section and find out what is in there? Here are the Orange juice brands to choose from – Tropicana, Minute Maid, Del Monte, Real and the list goes on. So which one should you choose? Since you are health conscious let us choose the healthy one. But then, which one is the most healthy? Seems like a recent shopping experience? Yes, it is!


Now, think about any other food item and we can guarantee you will have to make similar difficult choice again.

Whether it is yogurts, cooking oil, poultry, milk products etc, you are in same situation over and over again. Every product claims to be the best choice for you and your family. To add to this confusion you have some more things to confuse you further.

Heard about these catch phrases – Added Sugar, Sugar Free, Fat free, low calorie, lite/light versions. Marketing teams from food companies use all these to lure you in buying their products. Again, almost every other food company has a food product in each of these categories.

At times even for the most vigilant consumers these terms become quite confusing. Shopping in supermarket was supposed to be easy but this is information overflow guys!!

So what should the average consumer do? Well, there are no shortcuts. Each of these product companies want you to believe that their product is best and healthy. The reason we say believe is because not all of them are healthy. Therefore, the only option we are left with is to educate ourselves and read the fine prints. Well it is not exactly fine prints. Due to food regulation in many countries, food companies are required to add food labels on their products. Food labels are also known as Nutrition Labels in many countries but they are one and the same thing.

Food labels can be a good way to understand the product better. So let us start from basics and understand how to read food labels effortlessly. This will help you make the informed decision while buying your next food product.

In this article we will try to address following questions –

  • What are food labels?
  • Why are they required?
  • What is mentioned in it?
  • Where do you find the food labels?

What are food labels

Food label is a set of information which is mentioned on many pre-packaged food items available in the market.

In many countries, it is mandated by law to mention details such as – main ingredients, energy content and nutritional information on prepackaged food items. The idea is to maintain enough transparency with the consumers.

This information helps an everyday consumer to make informed decision while buying a food item. People with specific dietary requirements will find such information quite handy making them take healthy choices.

Why are food labels important to an everyday consumer

Food Industry spends millions of dollars each year to lure people into buying their products. Tough competition and well informed consumer makes it super important for these companies to look into their marketing strategy.

From company point of view every product they make need to be marketed well for better sales. Earlier the focus used to be more on taste but in recent times health is taking priority. This is because people are becoming more health conscious and looking carefully into their diet.

Based on consumer awareness and latest scientific findings food companies are quick to adapt their products to such requirements.

An example here would be the Sugar free products. Based on latest research it has become quite evident that people on Sugary diet have higher chances of getting diabetes.

This has enabled food industry to launch various Sugar free alternatives in market.

Another example would be fat free or light options for such food products. Researchers conducted studies and found that having too much fat may increase your chances of having high blood pressure. High blood pressure makes you more prone to heart disease.

This again enabled food industry to come up with a fat free or light/lite version of their products.

Now the important thing to note here is whether the alternative suggested is really a healthy alternative or not.

For example, in dairy products removing excess fat from it may actually spoil its overall taste. Therefore, to compensate for this many food manufacturers substitute it by adding Sugar.

Another example where similar strategy is applied is the Corn flakes or Bran flakes. Here, Sugar is added to improve taste. After all the food needs to taste good. As you can see due to these trade-offs a product that is marketed as healthy may not be so.

Therefore, information available in food labels on packaged foods becomes quite important. This information can help you understand if the food is healthy for you or not?

Where do you find food label

Food labels also known as nutrition labels are mostly displayed in a grid format on the back or side of the packaging.

These labels include information such as energy (mostly in KJ/KCal), nutrition breakup such as – % of fat, Sugar etc. Other key details available on the food labels are – amount of Protein, Fibre and Salt.

This nutrition information is usually shown against a daily reference intake for adults or kids.

For example an adult average reference intake would be 2000 calories per day.

The nutrition information is provided per 100 gm or sometimes in portion or serving sizes.

Food label in the front of packaging

Many food manufacturers display a subset of nutrition information in the front of the package. This is quite useful in supermarket setup for consumers to compare food products at a glance.

The information provided at the front is therefore about key takeaways for the consumer. On the front of the package key information around nutrition is displayed. This includes details such as – amount of Energy, Protein, Sugar, Salt or Fat etc.

You should however take these numbers in front of the packaging as guidelines only. It is always good to dig a bit deeper. Therefore, you should refer more detailed information at the back of the package. This will help you understand the product better before purchasing.

Food label colour coding

Many food packages today provide colour codes in addition to nutrition information.

The colour codes used are – Red, Amber and Green where –

  • Red means nutrient is in higher quantity
  • Amber means nutrient is in moderate quantity and
  • Green means nutrient is well below the recommended daily reference intake.

This colour coding helps consumers to make informed decision while purchasing a food item in a glance. The colour scheme helps to clear indicate if certain nutrients in food item are higher than recommended reference intake.

Commonly you can find packages highlight this color coded information for – Energy, Sugar, Salt, Fat, Saturated Fats.

Consumers looking out to reduce weight should focus on products with more Green on food labels. This is equally true for those trying to bring in more healthy options in their diet

You may as well include food with more Amber in your labels however you should definitely cut down on food with more Reds.

You should definitely restrict yourself from having food with more reds on their labels. If you can’t completely cut down such food items from your diet it is better to take them less often or in small quantities.

Use of ingredient list in food label

If you have any particular dietary requirements or allergy advice, Ingredient list on a packaging is quite insightful.

If you are prone to allergic reactions from certain foods, it is always a good idea to check the ingredients.

Knowing that certain consumers may be allergic to certain products, food manufacturers ensure to highlight such items in bold. Many times specific allergy advice is highlighted in the packaging (mostly near the ingredients or nutrition information).

The allergy advice is for more common type of allergies and may not cover all medical conditions. Therefore as a consumer you may want to be extra careful for any specific conditions applicable to you.

It is advisable to consult your doctor for any allergy conditions that you may have. This will help you scan for such ingredients while purchasing the food items.

Bottom line

While food manufacturers provide a lot of information in their food labels, this information may vary according to the country you live in and local food regulatory requirements. Therefore, the food labels can contain quite different details in different countries. A classic example would be the “Vegan” classification which is not available in many countries.

While most of the multi-national food companies tend to follow appropriate standards this may not be true for local businesses. However almost all companies tend to publish as much information as possible about the food items in their food labels. If the food product does not contain appropriate details there is good chance it may not be healthy.

Therefore, as an average food consumer you should be aware on how to read the food label to make informed decision about your purchases. We hope that the next time you go out for shopping you watch out for food labels and buy the right product for yourself.