By Andrea Bursey (MSc. Dietetics)

These days a trip to the grocery store can be more confusing than anything – you’re faced with so many different food options with an array of exciting and appealing claims. Welcome to the “free from” era, a time when food products display more claims and callouts about what they don’t contain compared to what they do. Examples of “free from” claims are gluten-free, free from sugar, free from colourants, and the list goes on. It’s so easy to notice these claims and overlook the entire nutritional profile of a snack food or ready meal. 

How to read food labels

Food labels and nutrition tables don’t have to be overwhelming. They can be used as valuable tools to guide us in making the best choice. It’s important to understand how to read and interpret food labels and use them to your benefit. When comparing the nutritional content of food, always look at the nutritional content per 100 g – this helps you compare apples with apples. The serving size is also important to look at as this is the recommended amount that you should have in one sitting.

Health claims like “low in fat” and “fat-free” displayed on packaged foods may lead you to believe that these products are great choices, however, these foods are often loaded with fillers like sugar and carbohydrates to improve taste and texture. The ingredient list displays quantities of ingredients from the highest to the lowest amount. The closer “sugar” is to the top of the ingredient list, the higher the sugar content. Sugar is sometimes listed using other words: cane sugar, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, syrup, honey, galactose, lactose, maltose, maltodextrin, rice syrup, corn sweetener and xylitol.

(Looking for a sweet snack, check out this recipe for dark chocolate peanut butter love bites – high in love and low in sugar).

The consumption of excess salt can negatively affect your health as well as result in water retention and bloating. Look out for other names for high sodium ingredients: celery salt, garlic salt, meat/yeast extract, monosodium glutamate, (MSG), onion salt, rock salt, sea salt, sodium, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, stock cubes, vegetable salt.

Avoid food products that have a very long ingredient list of unfamiliar, processed ingredients. Try to choose products with fresh ingredients and minimal additives and preservatives. A shorter shelf life also shows you that a product is a fresher and healthier option.  


Guideline to understanding food labels

Nutrient (per 100 g) 

Best choice:

Sodium < 400 mg 

Saturated fat < 3 g

Total fat < 10 g

Trans fat Trace/0

Sugar < 10 g

Fibre >3 g