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Reading between the lines of a food label

So you have a great nutrition plan and are looking forward to getting started on it, or you just want to reduce your calorie intake slightly each day. Your first major problem arises when you enter the minefield of food labels. Whilst there is regulation, the phrases, terminology and complex maths on a food label can instantly cause you to be miscalculating what you are eating.

In an ideal world, the purpose of a food label is to allow consumers to make an informed decision and avoid any imperfect information in the market. However, nutritional claims and dodgy serving sizes can create more problems than they solve. Here's a quick guide to reading food labels; get used to it and it will be incredibly helpful to execute your nutrition plan effectively.


Ingredients list:
All food products have to include an ingredients list, unless you are buying single ingredient items. There are few ways of being misled at this point. Ingredients must be in order of weight with the main ingredient being first, giving you an idea of what the majority of the food is made of. However, it can become confusing when manufacturers begin using alternate words for what is essentially added sugar and added fats, there may be up to 56 alternate names for sugar so keep an eye out for those.



Nutritional information:
Checking out the nutritional label is essential if you want to keep moving towards your goals. Every product, excluding fresh produce, is required to provide a breakdown of nutrients and calorie content. It is important to look past the claims and straight at the actual nutritional information. For example to declare a product as high protein it only needs to contain a minimum of 20% protein content; when divided across smaller portions this really does not make the product high protein. Take the new “high protein” Weetabix that are available: whilst they meet the 20g per 100g requirement, per serving they only actually have 3.1g more protein than the standard Weetabix. So, rather than falling for the “High protein”claim on the label, make sure you take a look at the actual declared nutritional information.



Reduced fat/sugar:
With the aim of creating lower calorie products, many manufacturers have moved to “Low Fat” or “Low Sugar”products. The problem with this is that the product is likely to have the reduced component replaced with something of equal or worse outcomes, for example, 'Low Fat' items often have more sugar, as you can see in the example below. Alongside replacing the “bad” macronutrient with something else, it might also not be as reduced as you may think. To make a claim of reduced fat or any nutrient, the reduction only needs to be 30% reduced. This can still lead to large intakes of unwanted calories. It is also common to over-consume items of reduced nutrients, leading to a similar overall consumption.


Suggested serving sizes:
It is also essential to provide nutritional information per portion of the product. However, yet again, the manufacturer can easily manipulate this. It is extremely common to give a better impression of the product by dividing it in to smaller and unrealistic serving sizes. Any product can contain less than 1g of fat if the serving size is small enough. So again, it is important that you consider how much of the product you are consuming.


This is a simple introduction to what to consider on food labels when you are trying to be conscious of nutrients and calories. Whilst there are many other things to consider, such as the quality of ingredients and your personal requirements, these points are your absolute basics. If you don't already, start reading labels and being more aware of what you are actually eating. You can also use the Virtuagym app to record your food diary and keep track of everything you are eating.


Need more help with your nutrition? Book in a consultation with Mike to have a bespoke programme written for you.

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