An expert breaks down what you need to know about food labelling

Tips on navigating any food label
An expert breaks down what you need to know about food labelling
CosmoBy Cosmo -

In most countries, it is legally required to display a product’s nutritional information on the exterior of its packaging. This is undoubtedly a useful tool when it comes to managing our dietary intake, if we know what we are looking at. Below, PT and health and wellness advocate, Charlotte Shelley, shares her top tips for navigating your way around any food label.

Check the recommended serving size...

Weigh out a suggested portion; it’s likely to be much smaller than we would usually consume! This is something to be mindful of when totting up our calorie intake.

Calories: the key to weight gain/loss, and arguably the most important component of a food label...

Whilst I’d advise that calories are not something to become infatuated by, it’s necessary to understand their role within our diet:

- Where calories in vs. calories out are equal = weight maintenance

- Where calories in exceed calories out (surplus) = weight gain

- Where calories out exceed calories in (deficit) = weight loss

Understand % Nutrient Reference Value (NRV)...

This refers to the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in accordance with daily recommendations. The information given is based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day, so the percentages may need to be adjusted to align with your own daily intake.


Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram:

Oh, carbohydrates; they’ve had a tough ride. Deemed for years in the media to be the antagonist to weight loss. We see ‘health’ products labelled as ‘low carb’, in a bid to increase sales. Are carbohydrates really the enemy to reducing body fat? No, of course they’re not! In fact, carbohydrates are the primary energy source utilised by the brain, and they’re also an essential fuel for movement and exercise.

Fat – 9 calories per gram:

Many assume a direct link between levels of dietary fat and adipose tissue. However, dietary fat cannot be singled out as responsible for changes in body fat, as this comes down to energy balance overall (note the calorie in vs. calorie out equation above). Whilst fats possess a higher caloric intake per gram than carbohydrates and protein, they remain indispensable to our diet, enabling the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and regulating hormone levels.

Protein – 4 calories per gram:

Essential for muscle growth and repair; a building block utilised to synthesise tissue. A high protein diet increases satiety (the feeling of ‘fullness’) and improves bone health. For individuals undertaking regular exercise, it is recommended to consume 1.5-2.2g of protein per day, per KG of bodyweight. However, protein has also become a trigger word in the media, typically associated with health/fitness products. Yet, just because an item is advertised as ‘high protein’, doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy. Further to this, I’ve observed an increasing trend of brands labelling foods as ‘high protein’, when they are not, in fact, particularly high protein at all. I would identify anything with 12-15g+ protein per serving to fall within this category.

We’ve now covered the basics of nutrition information on food labels, however, when it comes to individual packaging and branding, the guidelines are much less stringent. What does this mean? It means that all too often, companies are able to pinpoint a specific audience by utilising key words, which grab the attention of their target market. Below, I’ve outlined some examples of what we should be looking out for.

Trigger words such as ‘detox’, ‘cleanse’ and ‘purify’...

Eye-catching words that we are conditioned to recognise, but is there any real substance to these claims? Whilst a healthy, balanced diet is key to overall wellbeing, supplements such as shakes, juices and other ‘wellness’ goods will never function better than our liver and kidneys… The human body is quite literally designed to ‘detox’ and ‘purify’ itself.

‘Gluten Free’/‘Lactose Free’/‘Sugar Free’...

There is no real reason to avoid these food groups, unless you have a specific allergy/intolerance to them. A product is not necessarily healthier or more nutritionally balanced because it is free from any of the ingredients listed above. Demonising specific food types is, in my opinion, unhealthy in itself, and instils unnecessary scaremongering.


Despite the point I’ve addressed above, it remains practical to recognise sugar within food items. Typically, any ingredient ending in ‘ose’ (fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose etc) is a sugar. That’s not to say it should be avoided, but being mindful of what’s in our food is useful nonetheless.