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Weight loss: How to read food labels

There's a lot of information on food packaging these days, from calories counts to traffic lights codes showing how much fat, saturated fat, salt, sugars and calories are in a portion of the food, as a percentage of the recommended daily maximum 'Reference Intakes' – formerly known as Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA).

In addition, the traffic lights will give consumers an at-a-glance guide, with red showing the highest quantities of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugars, and green showing the lowest quantities.


Portion or serving size

The size “per portion” or “per serving” varies from manufacturer, so comparing foods “per 100g” or “per 100ml” can be a more realistic way of comparing foods. A portion may or may not be the serving amount you normally eat. It is important that you pay attention to the serving size, including the number of servings in the package and compare it to how much you actually eat. The size of the serving on the food package influences all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. For example, if a package has four servings and you eat the entire package, you quadruple the calories, fat, etc. that you have eaten.

'Reference intake (RI)

'Reference intake (RI) were formerly called guideline daily amounts (GDA). RI values given for an 'adult' are actually based on the requirements for an average woman with no special dietary requirements and an energy intake of 2,000 calories a day. The old system gave values for men, women and children.

Energy or nutrient

Reference Intake

Total fat













Each product should list the ingredients on the label. They are listed from largest to smallest amount (by weight). This means a food contains the largest amount of the first ingredient and the smallest amount of the last ingredient.

Label claim

Another aspect of food labelling is label claims. Some food labels make claims such as "low fat." These claims can only be used if a food meets strict government definitions. “Low fat” can only be used if the product has 3g or less of fat per 100g. Such claims as “good for you” or “healthy” must be explained and based on scientific proof. Manufacturers are not allowed to say that the food will prevent, treat or cure any type of medical condition.

Here are some other terms explained:

  • No added sugar - sugar has not been added as a sweetener. However, ingredients that do have natural sugar, such as fruits or milk (which has lactose, a type of sugar) may have been added, so the product may still have a high sugar content, or an artificial sweetener may have been added.
  • Unsweetened - no sweetener or sugar has been added to make the product taste sweeter.
  • Light or lite - the product must be at least 30% lower in one value such as calories or fat than a standard product. Check the label - it must list exactly what has been reduced and the amount, ie “light - 30% less calories.” However, this doesn’t mean the product is lighter than one made by another manufacturer, and being low in fat doesn’t mean it is low in calories, so check and compare labels.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 04, 2017

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