How to read food labels on the fly

The only time I looked at a nutrition label recently was when I got to go food shopping on my own. What bliss - it’s usually a frantic whizz around the supermarket, trying to stick to the shopping list while little hands put lots of odd things in the trolley. I’m the one that leaves the odd items at the edge of the checkout and smiles apologetically at the person on the till!

It made me think about the advice we nutritionists give about becoming familiar with nutrition labels and compare between products.

Top tip: If you buy mostly fresh food, you'll hardly have to read food labels at all!

Understanding food labels can be tricky. Even a degree or PhD in nutrition doesn’t help that much because you still need time to study and compare labels. Fine if you have plenty of time but the vast majority of us don’t. Even on my solo leisurely shop I only got to compare a couple of products.

safefood’s website provides a great full guide to understanding nutrition labels. What's on a Label has more detail on what are low, medium and high values, and what nutrition claims mean. When you have time I would recommend that you take a look.

But we have to be realistic and practical on what we can do in today’s busy world. We cannot look out for every label. As a busy working mum my tops tips on nutrition labels for time strapped individuals like myself are:

1. Buy mostly fresh foods

This cuts down on the number of labels in your basket.

2. Use front of pack traffic light labels to guide you

Many food packages now have a traffic light system – choose products with mostly greens or ambers instead of reds.

3. Don’t be fooled by nutrition claims

Some products claim to be ‘low in fat’ or a ‘source of fibre’ – but these claims are only referring to one nutrient and it’s worth looking at the other nutrients too.

4. Look at labels already in your food cupboard

Examine the labels of pre-packaged foods you eat regularly when you’re at home - aim for just one or two a month. If you feel they could be healthier, compare to alternatives during one of your less rushed supermarket trips.

I’m a big fan of being pragmatic. If you’re have a lot of processed foods in your shopping trolley then you will have a lot of labels to read to make the healthier choice.

However if the bulk of your food basket is fresh food like fruit and veg; starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta; meat, fish, beans, eggs, pulses; and dairy (or alternatives), then you have a lot fewer labels to decipher. 
Posted: 19/09/2019 12:26:07 by Marian O’Reilly

About Me

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Marian O’Reilly
Hi, my name is Marian O’Reilly and I’m the Chief Specialist in Nutrition at safefood. My job is varied ranging from nutrition research, working on mass media campaigns to dealing with public queries on healthy eating. I live in Co. Cork with my husband and our one year son. I’m a lover of the outdoors and in my spare time will be found out walking.