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Healthy eating tips - understanding food labels

Check the fat and sugar content on food labels when shopping. It is not always possible to tell how nutritious a food is by its appearance. 

Looking at food labels can guide you to make better food choices.

Nutrition information

The nutrition information box lists the amounts of calories and nutrients, such as fat, in different foods. But it can be difficult working out whether the values in these boxes are good or bad. To help you, the Food Standards Agency has produced a set of guidelines for the most common nutrients:

  A lot A little
Sugars 10g 2g
Total fat 20g 3g
Saturated fat 5g 1g
Fibre 3g 0.5g
Salt 1.5g 0.3g
Sodium 0.6g 0.1g

Look at the fat, sugar and calorie content per 100g. How do they compare to the guidelines in the table above? You should be aiming for more products that fall into the ‘little’ category. And only eat products that fall into the ‘lot’ category sparingly.

You can also order a wallet-sized copy of this card from our publications site.

The ingredients list

Keep an eye out for the sugar and fat content of food in the label. Check the ingredients list. The ingredients in a product are listed in order of weight. The first ingredient on the list is present in the greatest amounts and the last ingredient in present in the smallest amounts.

If fatty ingredients or sugars are fourth in the list or lower, the product is likely to be a lower fat/low sugar option. Fats and sugars can go by many different names; for a full list, go to Weight Concern’s page on understanding food labels.

Misleading claims

Unhealthy diets are contributing to rising obesity levels.Nutritional food claims can be misleading. ‘Light’, ‘diet’ or ‘reduced fat’ food may have less fat than a similar product but they can still be very high in calories, fat or sugar.

For example ‘low fat’ spreads have about half the fat content of butter or margarine but are still 40% fat. So while they have less fat than so-called ordinary spread, they are still high fat foods - use them sparingly. ‘Low fat’ crisps, biscuits, cakes and sausages can still be high in fat, sugar or both.

Many supermarkets have introduced ‘healthy eating’ ranges. These may have reduced levels of fat, sugar, salt or calories, but different places will use different criteria. So even for these products, it is worth checking the label to make sure you’re actually making a healthy choice.

More tips

Our Ten Top Tips page has more advice on reaching a healthy body weight through healthy eating and physical activity. Ten Top Tips is a programme for weight loss through lifestyle changes that you can fit into your daily routine.

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Updated: 25 September 2009