Food Labels: How To Decipher Them In 2018

Food helps to keep us nourished and food labels provide us with the required information so we know exactly what we’re putting in our bodies. At least, they’re meant to. As important as food is – it is medicine, after all – we need to also remember that it is a business. With the increase in consumer awareness, food manufacturers and companies are going the extra mile to market their products to a health conscious population.

While The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labels on food products, the ambiguity of many terms leaves room for confusion. According to a 2012 Food & Health survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, the healthfulness of foods and drinks influences consumer buying decisions by 61%.
Unfortunately, this form of clever marketing can be grossly misleading, potentially affecting the consumer’s health. Consumers are attracted to terms such as organic, fat-free and no added sugars. As appealing as these terms can be, it’s important to note that if the product is any of these things, it can also still be highly processed and rich in calories. One important tip to adopt would be to completely ignore the labels on the front of the packaging and only focus on the ingredients listed at the back. With food manufacturers constantly attempting to conceal just how unhealthy their products are, it’s important to inform yourself about just what each food label means.

Read on as we discuss, and decipher, the most common food labels.

The ingredients list

When ingredients are listed, they are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest amount. Also, a 2010 report stated that many ingredient lists are often printed in small, condensed type, making them much more difficult to read. The best thing to do would be to scan the first three ingredients as these would be the largest of what you’re consuming. Moreover, if the ingredients list is longer than 2–3 lines, that translates to the product having been heavily processed.

Serving sizes

Serving sizes can often be misleading. A lot of people, myself included, are unaware of exactly what a serving size means. Many of us are guilty of assuming that an entire package is a single serving when it could actually consist of much more than that. The reality is all the numbers listed below for calories, fat and carbohydrates are based on one serving, not on the entire package. This is how food manufacturers make a product appear to be low in fat and calories. Unfortunately, most times people generally eat larger portions of serving sizes in one sitting. A whole chocolate slab may be two servings yet many of us are guilty of finishing the entire thing off in one go. This results in you consuming more calories than you may think. If you really what to know just how much you’re consuming, simply multiply the serving given on the back by the number of servings you’ve eaten. Be sure to note the number of servings in a package andlook out for packages that look like single servings but really aren’t.

Light food

Any product that uses the term light uses it to claim that said product contains reduced calories, fat or sodium when compared to regular version of that same product. A food needs to contain at least 50% less calories/fat/sodium than the amount found in comparable products to be considered light. It’s important to note that although a product may be labelled as light, this may only refer to the flavour and texture rather than the actual nutrient content thus, once again, make sure to always read the nutritional facts.

Multigrain/ Made with whole grain

This is a term that a lot of health-conscious consumers find themselves drawn to.Whole grains, unlike refined grains, are richer in nutrients and fibre.
Unfortunately, food manufacturers have picked up on the fact that multigrain and made with whole grain are buzzwords and they’ve attempted to capitalise on it. As healthy as multigrain may sound, it can also mean that of the different types of grains found in the product, a majority of it is likely refined grains. In regards to the product being made with whole grain; if it doesn’t say 100% whole grain on the box, then it’s not 100% whole grain in the box. By claiming to be wholegrain, all that you can be sure of is that the product may contain whole grains- listed towards the end of the ingredients. Only purchase products that say they’re 100% whole wheat or whole grain and don’t shy away from checking the ingredients. Whole wheat should be listed first and there should be no mention of white, all purpose or enriched wheat flour. Also, don’t choose your whole grain by colour alone as some may be draped in caramel coloring.

Natural/ Organic

Both of these terms have yet to be given a proper, definite definition by the FDA, giving food manufacturers the freedom to define it however they see fit. If a product is labelled natural, it’s to claim that it’s free of any additives, colours or synthetic ingredients. Nonetheless, it could still be high sodium, sugar, calories and fats. In the case of organic, the product may have been made with only 70% organic ingredients, leaving the remaining 30% to be anything but. Fully organic foods will carry the label of being 100% organic. Although it is preferable to buy organic, you’re better off purchasing from your local farmers(after you talk to them about the processes used during farming; processes that are hopefully free of vaccinations and pharmaceuticals).

No added sugar

Diabetics and sugar addicts beware. Some foods are naturally high in sugar, meaning they don’t need to contain added sugars – but this doesn’t make them healthy. Also, other products that contain no-added sugar may contains artificial sugars and these are no way healthier than natural sugar. When scanning the ingredient list, look out for terms such as sucralose, aspartame, maltodextrin, saccharin, barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, maltose, carob syrup, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup and rice syrup. If any of these sugars are the first half of the ingredients, be sure that the product is extremely high in both sugars and calories.

Low-fat/ Fat free

I personally have been guilty of grabbing any product that carries this label, being completely unaware of its contradiction. If a food claims to be low-fat or fat-free, this does mean that it’s had its fat content reduced. Unfortunately, as fat contributes to both flavour and texture, manufacturers replace it with excess amounts of sugar and other flavourings. Don’t be scared of fats. They’re not the enemy – at least not all of them. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats) are healthy fast and they can be found in foods such as avocados and nuts.


This is another term that a lot of people are attracted to due to its supposed health benefits. Gluten is a protein found in most grains and, unless you have a gluten intolerance or you suffer from celiac disease, removing it from your diet will have no positive health benefits whatsoever. Some products may even contain less fibre than regular grains. Also, like other products, gluten-free foods may have undergone processing and they may be extremely high in fats and sugars.

Zero trans fat

For any health conscious individual, trans fats are the big baddies when it comes to diet.These fats can increase the risk for stroke, heart attacks, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Hence the lengths that manufacturers go to in order to create the illusion that their foods are free of such fats. In reality, if a food claims to contain zero trans fat, what this actually mean is that there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Thus, if you were to indulge in more than one serving, you would be adding a good amount of trans fat into your body. Be sure to scan the ingredients for terms such as hydrogenated oils, partially-hydrogenated oils and shortening. Also, just because a food is free of trans fat doesn’t mean it isn’t rich in calories and sugars. The best way to avoid them is to stay clear of processed foods; which has been made easier thanks to the FDA’s decision to have these fats removed from foods by 2019.

Food labels are meant to provide accurate nutritional information so that one can make a more conscious choice about what they’re putting into our bodies. Unfortunately, capitalism has turned the business of food labels into a game of scrabble. That being said, the best way to not be duped by various marketing schemes is by either continuously educating yourself about what each term means or by eliminating processed foods from your diet altogether.

Want to put this to use?

Click on the link for a truly guilt-free, delicious recipe for chocolate oat biscuits, courtesy of Dr Michelle Braude’s book, The Food Effect.