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Food Labels 101 - Ingredients List

If you are the slightest bit concerned about the what is in the everyday packaged foods that occupy your shelf, you must have come across an ingredients list.  It is usually the first port of call when I want to know what is in that particular food product.  I am here to help shed some light on what these ingredients actually mean.

Ingredients lists must list all the foods and chemical additives a food product contains.  The ingredients are listed in order of weight or volume; the largest first, the smallest last.  For the most important or ‘key’ ingredients, the list gives a percentage.  This percentage is based on the weight of all ingredients before cooking (except for biscuits, cakes and cooked or cured meats).


Here are a few things to watch out for.


Bulking ingredients

Usually water and/or protein, which may be added to bulk out a product artificially.  Look out for: textured vegetable protein (usually soya), added animal proteins, vegetable proteins from milk (whey, casein) or cereals, and E450 (polyphosphates), added to frozen and chilled chicken to increase water content.



Improve flavour, consistency and “mouth feel”.  Look out for: palm oil (mainly saturated fat), hydrogenated fats (turning cheap vegetable oil into hard fats), trans fats (by-product of hydrogenation).



  Sugars can be hidden in many clever ways.  Look out for the following:

 - brown sugar, corn syrup, hydrolysed starch, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, demerara, dextrose, invert syrup, lactose, maltose, raw sugar or treacle.

 - high fructose corn syrup (highly processed) is sweeter than sugar for the same calorie content.  Made from corn in a process that converts corn starch to glucose and then fructose.  It also makes foods go brown (used in cakes, pastries, bread, crackers, breakfast cereals) and stops ice crystals forming in ice cream.


Articifical sweeteners  

Also present in many foods.  Look out for the following:

- acesulfame-K, aspartame (in chewing gum, yoghurt and “diet” soft drinks), saccharine, sodium cyclamate (or cyclamic acid and E952, found in soft drinks), thaumatin.

- bulk sweeteners include isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol, found in ‘diabetic foods’, ‘tooth-friendly sweets’, ‘sugar-free sweets’.  They carry the warning, “excessive consumption may produce laxative effects.” 



To convert sodium to its salt equivalent, multiply by 2.5.  Too much sodium leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Most of the salt we consume comes from pre-packed foods (ready-made meals, snacks, sandwiches, fast food, cakes and biscuits).

On food labels, these guidelines will help you make an informed choice: High = 0.6g or more; Medium = 0.3g; Low = 0.1g or less. 

The GDA for salt is 6g/day.  

A more conservative approach is not to consume more than 2-3g/day.  At three meals per day, that represents 1g per meal.


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