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Understanding Food Labels: The Lowdown

Food labels found on our food products are there to help us avoid foods which are high in added sugars, fat and salt!

Food packaging today generally has a nutrition label found on the side or back which includes information such as the amount of energy in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) provided, otherwise known as calories.

Additional information on carbohydrates, sugars, fat, saturates (saturated fat), salt and protein are also available per measure of 100 grams, and sometimes per portion.

          Do you take any notice of these labels? Stop and read them before chucking them into your supermarket trolley? Even care?

This information is provided so you can make healthier choices towards a more balanced diet.

If you regularly stock your kitchen with foods high in fat, sugar and salt then it’s time to start cutting down and eating them less often.

Most people eat and drink too many calories when compared with their daily activity levels, too much fat, salt and sugar.

Food Labels 1 3

Ok, we all know that eating a healthy balanced diet is the answer to healthy living, but do we actually do the right things to get us on track? probably not according to the latest government and health department research.

Yesterday I decided to do a run down on Food Labels, the ones that give you all the nutrition facts and figures for you to make those all important healthy choices.

You would think that reading a small label is pretty straightforward huh? 

Anyway, today whilst out looking for something to eat for lunch, I thought it would be a good idea to run through some real nutrition labels with you, and see how easy it is to actually understand the figures, and what they mean …

Throughout this article you’ll see quite a few different styles of nutrition labeling, but the basics are all pretty much the same.

What are you trying to find out from these labels?

You want to know what you’re eating right? You head out to the shops with a pretty good idea of what food you need for that day, the next few days or maybe even the whole week.

shopping list

Your list will detail the staple parts of you or your families favourites such as Bread, Milk, Cheese, Meat, Fish, Snacks and Drinks etc, but will obviously reflect your personal tastes and any dietary restrictions.

Every product has a 101 varieties on offer these days, the choices are just mind boggling. Sometimes you’ll stick with the same brands and at others you’ll try a different one, which each having a different nutritional content.

Enough babble, lets check out some of these labels I mentioned, and find out how much fat, sugar, salt and of course Calories I’ve just consumed!

First off, Sandwiches. Everyone loves a sandwich.

And here it is, the actual product I ate, and it’s nutrition label.


Looks great huh! Fresh Egg and Cucumber on Wholemeal Bread … Now this has got to be healthy right?

There is a whole lot of info there which can sometimes be very misleading.

Let’s break it down: This Pack Contains:
I’m guessing that this is telling me the exact nutrition I’m about to eat as Energy, Fat, Saturates, Sugars and Salt. It details Amounts and a % Reference Intake (Do you know what this is?)

Hmm, 1556 kJ and 371 kcal at 18%
Ok, so just by eating this one sandwich, I’m consuming 18% of my reference intake of energy.

Have I got that right? % Reference Intake is my daily allowance? Almost, but not exactly … 

It is there to show you the maximum amount calories and other nutrients you should eat per day, but it’s not a target, just a guideline.

Reference Intakes are based on an average-sized female who does an average amount of physical activity requiring approx 2000 kcal of energy per day. What?, really? why just a female?

It is done this way to help people who may have lower energy requirements by trying to reduce their risk of eating too much. 

As a rule, Women need around 8,400kJ (2,000kcal) per day and Men need around 10,500kJ (2,500kcal) per day. This will vary for individuals and of course the requirement for Children will vary even more. Your age, lifestyle and size will affect your daily energy requirements.

Did you know: Reference Intake has now replaced Guideline Daily Amount. The main difference was that the GDA existed for women, men and children, whereas the RI is only available for an average adult. This change was imposed by a new EU regulation

What are kJ and kcal anyway? I thought we were supposed to be counting calories, and this makes no sense to me at all?

When we discuss food energy, or energy used up during exercise it is always measured as a Kilocalorie or  kcal for short.

An individual Calorie (or Small Calorie) is too small to use for this purpose, so scientists decided to calculate energy usage with a slightly larger measurement for ease of use, where each kcal (or Large Calorie) = 1000 cal (Small Calories).

kJ or, you guessed it, the Kilojoule is the Metric variation where 1 kJ = 4.185 or 4.2 kcal. The kJ is today’s preferred measurement, but the large calorie or kcal is still used as a unit of food energy.

This sandwich is also providing me with 12.6g (18%) of Fat, 2.5g (12%) of Saturates, 2.7g (3%) of Sugars and 1.5g (25%) of Salt …. Wow!

Although the RI is based on an averagely active female, you can see how much a single (shop bought, not homemade) sandwich contributes to your maximum guideline RI, especially for Fat and Salt. The Saturates (Bad Fat) is part of the overall Fat total, but listed separately.

Many other Nutritional values are listed per 100g/ml, such as :  Carbohydrates, Protein and Fibre.

Soup Nutrition 1

Why use a measure of 100g/ml and not the whole pack? that’s confusing!

Using a standard amount of 100g/ml to measure the nutritional value of a food product makes it much easier to compare against other products nutritional content rather than using Portion Size.



Another way nutritional information is made easier to digest is the Traffic Light colour system created by the Food Standards Agency

The colour-coded information as shown on this soup instantly tells you if the food has a high, medium or low amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

  • red means high
  • amber means medium
  • green means low

Basically, you want to buy products that show more green on the labels. More green means a healthier choice.

Beware of foods that have red on them as this means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars and should be cut down on or avoided altogether.

Remember, always check for information about Portion Sizes.

The nutritional values displayed may only be for 100g/ml or a portion size and if you go over this, or eat / drink the whole lot then you may have to re-calculate the values based on how much you had.


When you go shopping next time, if you keep in mind the following guidelines you should hopefully arrive home with a whole lot less fat, sugar and salt:

  • Check the Ingredients List
  • Check the Nutritional Content
  • Don’t just count the Calories, but do be aware of foods which are high-calorie.
  • Check the type of Fat and how much
  • Check the Sugars
  • Beware of high Salt content
  • Know your Portion Size. You might eat more than the stated amount!


Did you find this article useful?

What do you find confusing on Food Labeling when you go shopping?

Let us know in the comments below, or if you have any questions – feel free to ask, thanks ?


David Gordon

Lifestyle and Holistic Fitness Coach

Hi! and welcome to DHG Fitness, where I help you improve your Lifestyle by showing you How To Eat Well, Exercise (the right exercise!), Burn Calories (Fat) and Reduce Your Stress.
You can read more about me here

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David Gordon

Lifestyle and Holistic Fitness Coach

Hi! and welcome to DHG Fitness, where I help you improve your Lifestyle by showing you How To Eat Well, Exercise (the right exercise!), Burn Calories (Fat) and Reduce Your Stress.
You can read more about me here

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