Understanding food labels

Confused about food labels? Read on for some advice and tips…

Food labels are designed to give you useful information about a food product, but they can often do the opposite by confusing parents trying to make healthy choices for their children. So how can you use food labels to choose healthy foods for your children?

What has to be on a food label?

By law food labels must include the product name, ingredients, guidance on storage, a ‘best before’ date, allergy advice and instructions for use.

Allergy advice includes 14 ingredients that are the most likely foods to cause food allergy. If a food contains any of these 14 ingredients, it must be clearly stated.

Understanding food labels

I will use an example from my fridge to illustrate how to understand the information that is presented to you on a food label.

Creamy yoghurt with fruit – Peach


Yoghurt (whole milk, milk protein, cream (1.1%), yoghurt cultures), peach (8%), sugar, stabilisers (modified maize starch, pectin, guar gum), flavourings, acidity regulators, (citric acid, calcium citrate), colourings (paprika extract)

Contains: milk

Nutrition information:

TYPICAL VALUES per 100g per serving (120g)           
Energy 98 kcal 118 kcal
Protein 5.0g 6.0g
Carbohydrateof which sugars 12.7g12.4g 15.2g14.9g
Fatof which saturates 3.0g2.1g 3.6g2.5g
Fibre 0.3g 0.4g

The single most important thing to remember about a food label is that the ingredients are listed in descending order…the largest ingredient is first and the smallest is last.

So in the example above, yoghurt is the largest ingredient (thank goodness as this is a yoghurt!!) and next is peach at 8% (or 8g per 100g) and then sugar is listed after peach and so it must be less than 8% . And the smallest ingredients are stabilisers, flavourings, acidity regulators and colourings.

The portion size is usually an adult portion but for this yoghurt a  child is likely to eat the whole 120g pot. A toddler may eat 1/2 to 3/4 of the pot.

Carbohydrates and sugar…

One of the most confusing things about food labels is the ‘of which sugars’ item, as most people think this is the added sugar in the product but it is not. In dairy products like yoghurt, you have 3 types of sugars:

Lactose = milk sugar

Fructose = fruit sugar

Sucrose = added sugar (table sugar)

The amount stated next to ‘of which sugars’ is the total sugar including all of the above and so it is impossible to find out the added sugar, which is what everyone actually wants to know! Try to compare similar products to each other and choose one with a lower sugar content.

What food labels do NOT tell you?

Remember that food labels do NOT tell you how nutritious a particular food is. This is important to remember in the context of your child’s whole diet, not just one particular food. Children need a balance of all food groups and one food cannot provide all the nutrients required for healthy growth and development. It is the combination of foods that is important, as some foods are high in certain nutrients and low in others, but when they are combined with other foods they can provide a healthy, balanced meal (see earlier post on ‘Portion sizes’).

As an example: Cheese

Cheese is a nutritious food for toddlers and children particularly for its calcium and protein content. But it has quite a lot of total and saturated fat in it and so will be labeled as “high fat”. However, in the context of a child’s whole diet, a piece of cheese is very nutritious even if it is high in fat.

 Try not to think of “good” and “bad” foods, just healthy, balanced diets.

 Paula x