So as part of our Operation Transformation, Transforming the Community (Rathdowney & Errill) I am doing weekly talks on different topics. I often put it out to the group to ask for their input and feedback came in this week that some of my OT’ers were really struggling with understanding what food is good and what food isn’t. It was really interesting chatting with them actually as although I realised that food labels can be misleading I suppose I have always taken it for granted that the basics I learned in home economics at 13 years of age was something everybody knew. Now this is really just giving me another opportunity to beat my drum here that I believe Home Economics should be taught to everyone in school, boys AND girls but I digress…

As someone who has always been incredibly interested in food and no, not just eating it (LOL) but cooking it and creating recipes I was always reading food labels to help me figure out my own. It was through this that I started to realise just how much crap (excuse the crudeness but I need to be blunt on this topic!) is put into those jarred sauces, processed and pre-packed meals, meats, cereals etc etc. So I started looking for patterns and checking one brand against another. Whats really sad is I noticed how much worse things got when brands (their marketers) decided to help you make decisions with calls to action such as “low fat”, “No Added Sugar” “heart healthy” and the likes! Now thankfully since the updated food labelling regulations which came into effect on 13 December 2014 there is some positive progress but we still have a way to go – hence this blog!

So then, what should you expect on a food label?

List of Ingredients
These should be listed in order of weight (i.e. quantity) so make sure the good stuff is first. For example, if the first ingredient in your Orange Juice is not oranges I’d be getting worried! Allergens should also be listed clearly in a more obvious typeset, font or colour than other ingredients so you now usually see these listed in bold.

Nutritional Information
The nutritional declaration on food labels is your handy quick reference. Its a great place to start as you may not see the word sugar on the ingredients list but it may be there in another guise… lactose, sucrose, syrup, dextrose etc etc like wise you may see sodium instead of the word salt so checking the declaration makes it much easier for you to make an informed decision. This info must list typical values based on 100g or 100ml for ease of reference including the energy yielded by the product in KJ (kilojoules) and kcal (kilocalories), the Fat present with a further breakdown highlighting how much of that is saturated, Carbohydrates with a break down of how much of that is sugars, Protein and finally Salt. Additional info may be provided regarding nutrients and fibre but this is not yet legally required in Ireland.

It is optional for companies to provide serving size and relevant portion information but if this is present you really should check what the recommended portion is against the size of the product.The common issue I see here is the “share bag” of Doritios or other crisps. Hand up now, how many of you have polished off a bag on your own?? When in reality that 200g “share” bag has 6 – 7 servings :O :O yes THAT many. A whole bag (as you will see from my picture above) has almost 1000 kcals and thats before the beer, wine or coke on the side are factored in!

So now you know how to read the label what about what it says??
Firstly, you should calculate your recommended calorie intake per day so you know the starting point – the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend an average calorie intake of apx 2000 per day but this can be adjusted up or down according to your gender and levels of activity. Its a good guide though as if that frozen pizza has 1,500kcals you’re practically at your daily limit without any other meals or much nutrition either!

Then you want to figure out whats good and whats bad..

Saturated Fats and Sugars are listed separately as they can cause problems when over consumed. Saturated fat generally comes from an animal source and is solid at room temperature – its not great for us so we want to limit this! Total Fats consumption should be less than 30% of our total daily calorie intake. Take note, that just because something says “no added sugar” on the packaging does not mean it is sugar free! It means it will contain naturally occurring sugar such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit. So if you are looking at weight-loss or just generally reducing your sugar intake you will need to check the exact percentage of sugars in this nutritional declaration.

General Guidelines
-> At least 400g or 4 servings of fruit and veg each day
-> Fats should be less than 30% of our daily intake
-> Sugar should account for less than 5% of our daily intake
-> Salt/Sodium should be limited and we want less than 5g a day ideally

If the label shows you the % of RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) a great rule of thumb is 20+ is high and >5 is low so consider this when determining if its good for you or not.

So thats a very basic and quick guide to get started. I should caveat this by saying do of course get yourself on a nutrition course if you want to learn more or perhaps visit a nutritionist to get a specific plan and guidance based on your exact requirements. I’m merely trying to offer a broad overview to assist your weight loss journey. I’ll finish with one thought – box smart! Don’t believe the marketing hype without at least sussing out the ingredients or nutritional information on the back. These brands are counting on our apathy and until we become more informed as consumers and talk with our wallet things will be slow to change.