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Decoding Food Labels: What You Need To Know

As a health coach I endorse a non diet approach to nutrition, without counting points or calories. Eat like your ancestors did. The theory being, if you eat whole foods - non processed - you really don't need to count because you're naturally reducing the amount of dense calories.

I studied food labels in depth as part of my health coach diploma and was blown away by the research. I will share some of the work with you.

3 interesting points about food labels and marketing on food labels:

1) Money is rarely spent on advertising fruit, vegetables and other whole foods

Billions of pounds are spent on advertising and marketing food, with a large percentage aimed at kids - think about the bright colours and fun characters on cereal boxes and canned spaghetti etc designed solely to draw them in from a young age. Boom, they've got them - new habits formed from an early age!

2) Listing according to amounts (weight) included - highest first

The ingredients on food labels must be listed in descending order - highest first. You'll be surprised how many "healthy" foods have sugar as the 1st or 2nd ingredient. More on this later.

3) Reference Intakes - shown as % against the recommended daily intake.

This is generic for a healthy person consuming 2000k per day. It doesn't accommodate gender, weight, age, activity level, pregnancy, lactation, diseases such as diabetes etc.

When you look at ingredients on food labels, ask yourself whether you would use the same ingredients when you're cooking it at home from scratch.

Other questions to ask yourself;

• What type of fats/oils are used? Trans-fats?

• How much sugar/salt per serving?

• Are there additives? Preservatives? Artificial colours?

• Is the food nutrient-dense or calorie-dense?

• GMO?

• What are the first 3 ingredients?

• How many different types of sugar?

• What is “natural flavour”?

“Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.” ~ Michael Pollan.

Back to advertising and marketing, there are some interesting points here too. You'll see some very clever tactics on the front of package labelling. Foods advertised on the front of package as "low calorie" but on the back of the package, you may find there is little difference between the standard and low calorie versions.

"High fibre" is used on the front of packaging but on the back of the packaging it could be high in salt, sugar and be highly processed. Everybody needs more fibre but keep it simple - eat vegetables, legumes and grains with/in meals, and you get all the fibre your body needs.

"Low fat". OK that may be the case but it's possible it's full of sugar, additives and preservatives. By the way, our bodies need fat (lipids). Too much of it, or the wrong type of it can lead to weight gain but we do need healthy fats in our diets.

"No added sugar" is another one but it could still contain it via other sources, fruit juice for instance.

"No sugar". But, does it have artificial sweeteners?

Other types of misleading terms on labels are "natural", "home-grown", "farm fresh", "free range". I did a lot of research on "free range" and believe me, it's not what you think but that's another blog/story for another time.

An example is this product:

According to the ASDA website, the ingredients are:

Whole Grain Rolled Oats (60%), Sugar, Sunflower Oil, Honey (3%), Salt, Molasses, Emulsifier: Sunflower Lecithin, Raising Agent: Sodium Bicarbonate

So, it's got Sugar and Molasses and only 3% honey. However, you can make them at home and they're really easy to make. Make on a Sat or Sun for the week ahead. No added preservatives or emulsifiers necessary. Here's an example that uses banana - you get the extra nutritional value from it, great! There are plenty more recipes on Google.

Know your food labels and make sure you understand what you're eating. If I walked up to you in the street and said "drink/eat this" without explaining what it is, you'd question it, right? The food you buy in the supermarket is no different. Detoxing extends beyond juice diets, it's about reducing the amount of "crap" we put in to and on to our bodies.

Try to limit processed foods. Like most things in life, stick with the 80/20 rule where possible.

If you need inspiration on how to make natural home cooked meals, get in touch and I can share some tips, advice, and provide recipe ideas that won't break the bank or take hours preparing and cooking. I love receiving your comments and feedback so please do share your thoughts.

Happy label spotting!


Author: Amanda Robinson dipCNM, ANP, UKHCA. Amanda is a qualified health coach who graduated with a health coach diploma from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London. A member of the UK Health Coach Association and Association of Naturopathic Practitioners. She is the founder of Health Steps If you would like to chat with Amanda about how she can help you with your Health and Wellness you can email her at


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