6 Things to look out for on nutrition labels

Nutrition labels are on every pre-packaged item we buy on our weekly shop, from pre-prepared salad to ready meals and tins of beans. Casting your eye over the ingredients of what you're about to eat is all well and good, but what are you actually looking for? There are a few things you should be watching out for when it comes to those food labels - and they might not always be as obvious as you might think. Food manufacturers use a variety of different names for certain ingredients which you might be trying to avoid, so it's important to be aware of exactly what you're eating. Additives, preservatives, fat, sugar, salt - all these things can be bad for us if consumed in excess. We reveal 6 things you should look out for on nutrition labels!

#1. Yeast Extract

It sounds fairly harmless, and it could be - if you're buying a tub of Vegemite or Marmite, that is. But yeast extract listed as an ingredient in many foods is simply another way to describe Monosodium Glutamate, also often listed as hydrolysed yeast. Crafty food companies know that many of us are avoiding eating foods containing MSG, but yeast extract makes it sound so harmless, doesn't it? Labelling laws state that if less than 78% of an additive is made up of free glutamate (the most active ingredient in MSG), then it doesn't need to be labelled as MSG! That means that a flavouring ingredient could contain up to 77% free glutamate and still hide under a different name.

Monosodium glutamate has been found to 'excite' the brain and regular consumption can cause headaches, fatigue, eye damage, obesity and depression. Some research has even claimed it could trigger degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Food manufacturers try to get around this by claiming that glutamate is a naturally-occurring substance - in fact, most of the glutamate used as a flavour enhancer is produced synthetically, as this is cheaper. Your food could even claim "No added MSG" on the front, whilst listing yeast extract amongst the ingredients on the back. Look out for hidden MSG in tinned foods, savoury snacks, seasoning mixes, stock cubes and instant meals. The best way to be sure you're avoiding it completely? Cook from scratch and avoid pre-packaged and processed foods.

#2. Salt

Traffic light labelling on ready meals and instant foods has to some extent allowed us all to be more aware of how much salt we are eating, but do you really know just how much you are consuming? Hidden salt in food such as bread, pastries, even cereal bars, all adds to our daily intake, and too much salt is bad for your heart, and your health! Eating a diet high in salt raises blood pressure, increasing your risk of stroke and heart attack. So how can you be sure the food you're eating doesn't contain too much salt?

Adults should aim to eat less than 6g of salt per day. That might sound like a lot, but it quickly adds up. Salt content on our food is often listed as 'sodium' and whilst it's the same thing, it is measured differently, which can make it hard to monitor exactly how much salt you are consuming. Here's our quick guide to how much salt is too much:

  • Food containing more than 1.5g salt or 0.6g sodium is classed as high in salt
  • Food containing between 0.3g - 1.5g salt or 0.1g - 0.6g sodium has a medium level of salt
  • Food containing between 0g - 0.3g salt or 0g - 0.1g sodium is classed as low in salt

Try to avoid obviously salty foods such as salted nuts and snacks, processed meat such as bacon and ready meals, but look out for hidden salt content in foods you wouldn't expect to be high in salt, such as breakfast cereals and baked goods.

#3. Sugar

Government recommendations say we shouldn't eat more than 30g of added sugar a day, totalling 5% of the calories you consume a day. Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, which increases your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes - it can also lead to tooth decay. But what's the difference between natural sugars and added sugars, and what should you be looking out for on nutrition labels?

Any sugar added to food or drink can be unhealthy if consumed in excess and sugar can often be hidden in foods you wouldn't expect to find it, such as in savoury snacks or salad dressings. Check the ingredients list as added sugars must always be included. Ingredients are listed in order of highest first, so if sugar is one of the first ingredients, this means the food is high in added sugars.

Added sugars could be listed as fructose, glucose, sucrose, hydrolysed starch, maltose, honey, corn syrup or invert sugar - phew! That's quite a list to keep an eye out for. Some food packaging, such as ready meal packaging, makes life easier for us by indicating whether a food is high or low in sugar using traffic light symbols. But it's actually fairly easy to work out for yourself which foods are low or high in sugar. Here's how!

Check the 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)' section on the nutrition label

  • Any food with more than 22.5g total sugars per 100g is classed as high in sugar
  • Any food with 5g total sugars per 100g or less is classed as low in sugar

Sugar content which falls between these two figures contains a medium amount of sugar. Bear in mind that the sugars figure includes not only added sugars but also natural sugars (still with us?) and that foods naturally high in sugar (such as foods containing fruit) are a healthier choice than those packed with added sugars, even if the two products contain the same total amount of sugars. This is why it is important to check not only the 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)' section but also the ingredients list.

#4. Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite

Nitrites and nitrates such as sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are salts which are used in the curing process for meats and other smoked or processed foods. They have antibacterial properties which prevent microbes from growing on food and also help it to keep its attractive colour. You'll find sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite listed on the packaging of processed meats such as parma ham, smoked sausage, hot dogs, salami, ham and bacon as well as smoked fish including smoked salmon.

The jury is still out as to what harm consuming nitrites and nitrates can have, but they are thought to react with stomach acid to cause cancer-causing compounds known as nitrosamines. Studies have, to date, only been carried out on animals and only those animals which consumed high quantities of nitrates and nitrites were affected. Processed meat and smoked meat and fish only contain a small quantity of these preservatives, so you would need to eat them regularly to be at at increased risk of cancer or heart disease. Having said that, it's a good idea for children and pregnant women to avoid these preservatives wherever possible. We're not saying you can't enjoy a bacon and avocado toastie once in a while - just don't make it a daily habit!

#5. Trans Fats

Trans fats are even more harmful to our arteries than saturated fat, and they're usually found lurking in hydrogenated oils. Foods may claim to be 'trans-fat free' but could still list partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredients. Whilst consuming trans fats every now and then isn't a major cause for health concerns, if a food you eat regularly lists trans fats as an ingredient, you may want to consider an alternative. When choosing a healthy spread or oil for cooking on your weekly shop, look for those which list liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient and contain less than 2g saturated fat per tablespoon. Healthy options include olive oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil, safflower and sunflower oil. Coconut oil is also fine, in moderation, as it contains plenty of good fats.

#6. Artificial Sweeteners

Whilst many people consider artificial sweeteners the key to weight loss, preventing tooth decay and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, these chemical cocktails could be doing your body more harm than good. Many companies are now using increasingly obscure names to hide artificial sweeteners in our food and drink, and swapping sugar in your diet for artificial sweeteners could put you at risk of over-eating, which could lead to weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Here are a few of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners - it's quite an extensive list!

  • Aspartame - also listed as APM, NutraSweet, Aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester
  • Aspartame-Acesulfame - also listed as TwinSweet
  • Acesfulfame Potassium
  • Glycerol - also listed as Glycerine
  • Erythritol - also listed as Licorice
  • Isomalt
  • Maltitol
  • Polydextrose
  • Saccharin
  • Sorbitol
  • Sucralose
  • Xylitol

Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to be introduced in 1879, and today sweeteners are found in drinks, desserts, ready meals, chewing gum and even toothpaste. In fact, the sweetener market in the UK is worth £60 million and over 25% of households buy artificial sweeteners regularly. But are they safe?

Cancer Research UK have said there's no evidence linking sweeteners to an increased risk of cancer. All sweeteners used in the EU undergo a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Let's look at aspartame, one of the most commonly used sweeteners:


This low-calorie sweetener is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Yet long-term studies published by the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (1) in 2006 and 2007 linked aspartame consumption to an increase in cancers in rats. A further study by the US National Cancer Institute in 2006 (2) concluded that aspartame did not increase the risk of cancer, and in 2013, the EFSA announced aspartame as safe for human consumption (3).

But just because it's safe, does that mean it's healthy? Artificial sweeteners don't increase blood sugar levels the way that sugar does, so they are a good choice for those with diabetes. But in the past it has been suggested that used of artificial sweeteners could stimulate appetite - research is inconclusive, so unless there are medical reasons for you to use sweeteners, try to limit your intake of foods containing them.

We hope this has given you all some food for thought the next time you're at the supermarket doing your weekly shop. Don't be scared of nutrition labels - believe it or not, they're there to infom you, even though they can be somewhat complicated to understand. Eating a healthier diet starts with understanding what you're putting into your body and getting to the bottom of those nutrition labels and long lists of ingredients!

READ THIS NEXT: What's really in your ready meal?

Works cited:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16507461

  2. http://dietandhealth.cancer.gov/docs/aspartame.pdf

  3. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/3496.pdf

Author By Paula Beaton
Date On 28th Jul 2015 at 15:05

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