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How to read food labels to make informed nutritional choices

Team AckoMay 27, 2024

To make healthy choices about what we eat, it's crucial to know what's in our food. Reading food labels is a great way to understand the ingredients and nutritional value of the products we're considering buying or consuming. By checking labels, we can spot things like excessive sugars, fats, or additives, helping us make choices that align with our health goals. Plus, it's a way to be aware of portion sizes and recommended daily intakes so we can keep our diets balanced. Ultimately, understanding how to read food labels empowers us to make informed decisions and lead healthier lives.  Here, we’ll explain how to read food labels, so you can feel confident in your choice of food.





Tips for Reading Food Labels

When it comes to reading food labels, it’s important to be aware of the following tips:

  • Calorie content: Calories are used to measure the amount of energy a food provides. Those who keep track of their calorie intake should be aware of the calorie content of each food item they consume.

  • Nutrition facts: Nutrition facts provide basic nutritional information about a food item in a set format.

  • Ingredients list: This is a list of all the ingredients in the food item from highest to lowest in terms of quantity.

  • Nutritional claims: Some labels may claim to contain a certain amount of vitamins or minerals. Be sure to double-check the ingredients list to make sure these claims are accurate.

  • Trans fats: Trans fats are generally unhealthy, and should be avoided where possible. If a label claims to contain no trans fats, check the ingredients list to make sure it’s true.

  • Serving size: Pay attention to the serving size and adjust your portion size accordingly.

Nutrition Facts Labels – Things You Should Know

Nutrition facts labels, which are often found on the back of food packages, provide basic nutritional information in a set format. When reading food labels, you should know the following:

  • The total amount of energy in one serving of the food item. It is usually expressed in kilocalories (kcal).

  • The total amount of protein, in grams, contained in one serving of the food item.

  • The total amount of fat, in grams, contained in one serving of the food item.

  • The unhealthy fats which are best avoided.

  • The total amount of carbohydrates, in grams, contained in one serving of the food item.

  • The total amount of dietary fibre, in grams, contained in one serving of the food item.

  • The total amount of sugar, in grams, contained in one serving of the food item.

  • Information on vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, etc. 

Note: The contents of this section may vary depending on the food item.

Ingredients List

Ingredients lists are also important to read on food labels as it will tell you exactly what is included in the product. It is usually located at the end of the label and should be checked out for the following:

  • These are added to food to extend its shelf life, but may not always be healthy.

  • Many food products contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. Read the ingredients list carefully to make sure the product doesn’t contain more sugar than necessary.

  • Many food products contain artificial flavours or colours which may not be healthy.

  • It’s important to avoid any food items which contain chemical names.

Nutritional Claims 

Some food products may make nutritional claims such as “low fat” or “high in fibre”. However, it’s important to double-check these claims against the actual ingredients list, and nutrition facts label to make sure they are accurate.

Understanding Sugar's Many Forms

Sugar is an ingredient found in countless processed foods, often hiding behind a myriad of names. Manufacturers utilise this tactic to mask the true amount of sugar in their products, making it challenging for consumers to identify and monitor their intake accurately. By familiarising ourselves with the various aliases of sugar, we can make more informed choices about what we consume.

Types of Sugar

1. Beet Sugar: Extracted from sugar beets, this common form of sugar is often used in processed foods.

2. Brown Sugar: A mixture of white sugar and molasses, brown sugar adds a rich flavour to baked products.

3. Cane Sugar: Derived from sugarcane, this natural sweetener is widely used in food production.

4. Coconut Sugar: Made from the sap of coconut palm trees, this alternative sweetener has gained popularity for its perceived health benefits.

5. Date Sugar: Ground from dried dates, this natural sweetener provides a caramel-like flavour to dishes.

6. Evaporated Cane Juice: A less refined form of cane sugar, evaporated cane juice is often considered a healthier option.

Types of Syrup

1. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): A highly processed sweetener made from corn starch, HFCS is commonly used in sodas, baked items, and other processed foods.

2. Agave Nectar: Extracted from the agave plant, this syrup is marketed as a natural alternative to sugar but is still high in fructose.

3. Maple Syrup: Harvested from maple trees, this sweet syrup adds a distinct flavour to pancakes, waffles, and desserts.

4. Honey: Produced by bees from flower nectar, honey is a popular natural sweetener with various health benefits.

Other Added Sugars

1. Molasses: A byproduct of the sugar refining process, molasses is often used in baking and cooking for its rich flavour.

2. Fruit Juice Concentrate: Although derived from fruit, fruit juice concentrate is a concentrated source of sugar.

3. Fructose: A naturally occurring sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and honey, fructose is also used as a sweetener in processed foods.

Serving Size

Serving size is also important when it comes to reading food labels. It is typically expressed in grams or millilitres, and will give you an indication of the amount of food you should be consuming. Following the recommended serving size is important to ensure you don’t consume too much of any one food item.

Use-by and Best-before Dates on Food Labels

Food labels feature either best-before or use-by dates, each conveying distinct information. Best-before dates indicate food quality, ensuring optimal taste and nutrition until that date if stored properly. Past this date, the food may still be safe but might have reduced quality. Legally, products with best-before dates can be sold after, provided they're still suitable for consumption. 

Conversely, use-by dates denote foods unsafe to consume beyond a certain date due to health risks. Perishables like meat, fish, and dairy bear use-by dates, prohibiting sale afterwards. Bread, with a shelf life under 7 days, carries a "baked on" or "baked for" date for freshness assessment.

When is Food Okay to Eat?

The safest approach to determine if food is safe to eat involves a combination of practices. Firstly, when shopping, diligently check use-by or best-before dates to ensure you're purchasing products within their recommended shelf life. Secondly, maintain awareness of these dates on foods stored in cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers, rotating items to prioritise those nearing expiration. While these dates provide important guidance, they're not the sole indicators of food safety. Always examine food for signs of spoilage, such as unusual odours, discolouration, or texture changes. Additionally, trust your instincts. While use-by dates are critical for highly perishable items, such as meats and dairy, exercising sensory judgement can help determine safety for foods slightly past their best-before dates.

What are Compound Ingredients?

Compound ingredients in foods, like chocolate or pasta, are mixtures of other ingredients. Food labels must list all ingredients, including those within compound ingredients. For instance, chocolate chip ice cream lists ice cream ingredients and breaks down the constituents of chocolate (cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar). 

If an ingredient or compound ingredient constitutes less than 5% of the product, it can be listed as a compound ingredient without detailing its constituents. Additives and allergens, regardless of quantity, must always be listed separately. This ensures transparency and assists consumers, especially those with allergies, in making informed choices about the foods they consume.


In conclusion, it’s important to be aware of the basics of reading food labels in order to make informed nutritional choices. Paying attention to calories, nutritional facts, ingredients list, nutritional claims, trans fats and serving size is essential for those who wish to maintain a healthy diet.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some common questions about how to read food labels to make informed nutritional choices


What is a nutrition facts label?

A nutrition facts label is a set format that provides basic nutritional information about a food product. It typically includes information on calories, protein, total fat, saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates, fibre, sugar and vitamins and minerals.

How do I know if a food item contains unhealthy trans fats?

If a food label claims to contain no trans fats, check the ingredients list to make sure it’s true. If trans fats are listed, it means the food item contains unhealthy trans fats and should be avoided where possible.

How can I tell if a food product contains a lot of sugar?

Check the ingredients list for added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose and fructose. You can also check the total amount of sugar listed on the nutrition facts label.


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