How to read food labels

 Reading food labels may help us eat more healthily and to learn about the nutritional value of our meals. We tell you how to do it!

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When we go to the supermarket, we have a great variety of products within our reach.  Some call out to us with eye-catching slogans like “low fat”; others call out with their “no sugar”, and they often end up the shopping trolley. But are we really making the right choices for our health?

How to read food labels: what we should be focusing on

To really know what we are buying, we need to pay attention to the information that really is useful. This can be found for three essential parts, which are also obligatory: the legal sales description, the ingredients it contains and the nutritional information. Let’s take a look:

Legal sales description

This may appear to be superfluous, but it is important to read it in order to clearly identify the product and, by doing so, to know what you are really buying.  The information can appear in different forms. With the legal sales description, such as that for “mayonnaise” which, according to law, is a sauce made from an emulsion consisting mainly of vegetable oils, egg, vinegar and lemon juice, if it does not comply with these requirements, it cannot be sold under that name. With the name established by its use, the name a product is socially known as can be used, for example “custard”, or by the product description. In other words, with a sales description and a detailed explanation: for example, “flaky pastry filled with tuna”.

Ingredients label

This is the most important part. As its name suggests, the ingredients contained in the product are here. This may seem obvious, but some details are not quite so:

  • The order of the ingredients will give you clues about what the product contains in greater quantities. Contents are indicated in decreasing order.
  • Highlighted ingredients. If any of the product ingredients is highlighted in any way on the packaging, its percentage should be specified. Also, those ingredients considered to be allergenic should also be highlighted on the ingredients list.
  • Ingredient quantities. There is a widespread idea that products with more than five ingredients are undesirable, but this is not always the case: the number of ingredients does not affect a product’s nutritional quality. And the same can be said for products containing sugar, salt or saturated fats. In these cases, we should keep in mind the quantity they contain.

It is important not to forget to check the salt content: it is obligatory to state the amount of salt a product contains (in the past, it could appear a just salt) and this makes it easier to not go above the daily 5 g. This information is key because overuse of salt is linked to blood pressure and water retention.

A product is high in salt if it contains 1.25 g or more, and it is low in salt if it only contains 0.25 g.

Nutritional value label

It’s certain that this is the first thing we tend to look at, but it may be a little misleading. We may think that nuts contain many calories and, on the other hand, we may think that a light drink does not contain sugar, when they are obviously incorrect statements. So, we should focus less on the fats or sugars and more on the food itself.  

  • By law, nutritional information should indicate the energy value (what we know as calories) and the amounts of fats, saturated fatty acids, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt.
  • Voluntarily, it can include other amounts, such as monounsaturated fatty acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

What is the Nutri-Score?

This is a simplified, front of packaging labelling model that displays part of the nutritional information that packaged food and drinks should contain as a graphic. Nutri-Score classifies foods in five categories with a logo that includes a letter and a colour from A (dark green) to E (red), and between these, B (light green), C (yellow), and D (orange). The A logo (dark green) indicates better nutritional quality, and the E logo (red), inferior nutritional quality.  Food companies can decide whether or not to use this, but if they adopt it, it should appear on all the products of the same brand.