Reading food labels

Reading food labels can often feel like deciphering top secret codes.

However, if you know what to look for, the food label can reveal just how healthy (or unhealthy) a food really is. Here are some things to consider.

Each label must contain the following information
  • The caloric value of the product. It can be presented in kilocalories and kilojoules, both either per 100 grams or per product serving.
  • The product contents split by nutrient, with an exact measure of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, micro- and macroelements either per 100 g or per single serving of the product. The manufacturer often correlates the values with the recommended daily allowance.
  • The product ingredients. In this part all ingredients are listed, ordered by their presence in the product from highest to lowest. The closer to the end of the list an ingredient is listed, the smaller its amount in the product.
  • The composition of preservatives is very important (which is ubiquitously present in all processed food) as many of them can cause allergies and are dangerous to one’s health.

What do the E’s mean?

E 100 – E 199 – primarily additives of natural origin, gives colour to the product.

E 200 – E 299 – different acids, nitrates, sulphates, nitrites (dangerous to children). Their purpose is to preserve food and to fight against microbes.

E 300 – E 399 – antioxidants which also are used as preservatives. E 300 for example is vitamin C.

E 400 – E 499 – substances responsible for the product’s texture: emulsifier, stabilisers and thickeners. For example, this group contains: egg lecithin, starch, seaweed extracts, etc. All of these substances can be allergenic.

E 500 – E 1505 – the most harmful additives are part of sugar substitutes, acidifiers and flavourings. Avoid flavoured products. Apricot yogurt, for instance, should contain the fruit but an “apricot flavoured” yogurt has nothing to do with it: it is merely enriched with synthetic flavour.

Other things to consider on the label
  • The manufacturer is obligated to list the presence of all possible allergens. If they are present in miniscule amounts, the following phrase must be present “May contain traces of …”. Be careful and attentive to the ingredients which are dangerous for our health such as quinine, phenyl-alanine and guarana.
  • The place of production. The country and name of the manufacturing company must be printed on the label.
  • If the product is manufactured abroad, it must have a label with a translation. A missing label means either a product has appeared on the market illegally or is a counterfeit.
  • The presence of genetically modified products. If you want to avoid consuming those, search for the “Without GMO”.

The shelf-life of a product. Look out for these words:

“Consume before …” in this case the last possible date of product consumption is given. The product must not be used after the date so as to avoid poisoning. Usually, such consumption dates are present on meat, milk and ready-to-eat products without special preservation and in refrigerated storage.

“Best used before …” Here, an absolute deadline is not listed, but instead a suggested limit after which the product may change in its properties (such as taste), without becoming dangerous. Such expiry dates are often put on juices, vegetable oil and others. They can be used for a while after the date without danger to health. Do not forget that the date is given for an unopened product package. After opening, it can no longer be stored for a long period of time.

Also, pay attention to the manufacturing date and time, they should be printed on the packaging with a special machine or a stamp and not manually (with a pen or marker). Food products with an unlimited shelf life do not exist!

Other things you should know about a food label
  • Popular messages on labels, such as “natural”, “diet”, “low in calories”, “without additives” are often marketing ploys and do not correspond with the nutritional value of the product.
  • If it says that the product is low fat, it doesn’t mean that it is low in calories, it is likely to contain a lot of carbohydrates.
  • Be aware of the many names sugar can be disguised under. These can include: Cane juice, Dehydrated cane juice, Cane juice solids, Cane juice crystals, Dextrin, Maltodextrin, Dextran, Barley malt, Beet sugar, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Caramel, Buttered syrup, Carob syrup, Brown sugar, Date sugar, Malt syrup, Diatase, Diatastic malt, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Dehydrated fruit juice, Fruit juice crystals, Golden syrup, Turbinado, Sorghum syrup, Refiner's syrup, Ethyl maltol, Maple syrup, Yellow sugar
  • Don’t be fooled by the words “without cholesterol”. Cholesterol-free products may contain trans fats that are extremely dangerous for your health; they are formed during vegetable oil processing. In some countries there is no obligation to list the amount of trans fats. So, look out for the words ‘hydrogenated’ on the food label. This means that trans fats are present.
  • Salt can be identified by different names on food labels – both as “salt” and “sodium”. The closer it is listed to the start of an ingredients list, the more of it is contained in a product. An excessive amount of salt can be found in sausages and meat products, cheeses, fast food, preserves and baked goods.
  • Pasteurised or sterilised products vary by methods of thermic treatment – pasteurisation occurs at 70 degrees centigrade (at this temperature, bacteria die but vitamins are preserved). It extends the shelf life by a few days. Sterilisation is done at a temperature of 100 degrees and above; shelf life is extended significantly, but the content of valuable nutrients decreases.
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