How to decipher food labels

It can be incredibly difficult to understand food labels so in this article I attempt to make it easier for you!

First let’s compare a couple of products:

Sainsbury’s Blueberry Muffins 

Wheat flour (fortified with calcium carbonate, iron, niacin, thiamine)
Rapeseed Oil
Water Pasteurised Egg
Whey Powder
Wheat Starch
Raising agents; diphosphates, potassium hydrogen carbonate
Cow’s milk protein
Vegetable Glycerine
Preservative; potassium sorbate

Homemade Blueberry Muffins

Wholemeal flour
Baking powder

There is a HUGE difference between a homemade version versus a shop bought version.

When looking at the list of ingredients, know that the first ingredient is biggest amount down to the least amount. So, you can see from the Sainsbury’s muffins above the second ingredient is sugar!

So, the first thing to do is to look at all the ready-made products you buy and see if you can make a homemade version.

Pasta sauce is one of the easiest to replace. A jar of pasta sauce contains a significant amount of sugar and salt. When you make your own version not only are you avoiding the salt and sugar you can also include so many vegetables. It’s a win win!

When I’m shopping and looking at labels, I am typically looking for 3 specific things:

1. How much sugar is there and how many types of sugar are there?
2. How much saturated fat is there and where is it coming from?
3. How many ingredients are there and how many of them do I not understand?

And then I will also consider the brand and their ethos! For example, I aim to avoid palm oil and live with a peanut butter obsessed person!!! Ha, ha my husband cannot cope without the stuff and has been known to take it on holiday with him!! A lot of peanut butters (i.e. Skippy) contain a shed load of sugar and are also made from ‘dirty’ palm oil. I specifically buy brands that either contain no palm oil OR use oil from sustainable sources. Dirty palm oil has been named so due to the impact on the environment through deforestation and destruction of animal habitats.

The brands Meridian and Whole Earth have very different views on palm oil. My view is that I try to avoid any palm oil as much as possible but if a product does contain it (like the Whole Earth) I make sure it is coming from sustainable sources.

All brands will have their approach or ethos to the environment etc on their websites, so go look at them!

Have a look at this one!

Bear YoYo Strawberry 

Carrot Extract

Fruit Factory Strawberry Fruit String

Fruit Juice Concentrate

Glucose Syrup
Fructose Sugar
Gelling Agent
Acidity Regulator
Strawberry Regulator
Natural Colour
Coconut Oil
Carnauba Wax

Which one would you rather eat?


I wrote a really detailed article about sugar HERE. This article gives you ALL the names for sugar and WHY it is so VITAL that we look at our sugar consumption especially when it comes to our kids.

It is particularly important that you KNOW how much sugar is considered a lot and what you should be aiming for. It also explains the difference between free sugars and natural occurring sugars. I recommend you read this article.

If a product has sugar in the first 3 ingredients OR has more than 1 or 2 sugars listed, I will NOT buy it. I will most definitely avoid at all costs, high fructose corn syrup and anything high in fructose (please note that this does not apply to whole fruit, I’m talking specifically about added fructose).


Saturated fats have had bad press for a long time now, but I don’t worry about this too much. I do not avoid saturated fats and would not typically buy ANYTHING that is low fat. When fat is reduced, the sugar is increased! Not exactly a good alternative is it!? Most of my fats come from good oils (olive, coconut etc) real butter, nuts, eggs, oily fish etc.

The ONE fat you want to avoid is trans or hydrogenated fats. They are carcinogenic!! FACT!

You often find these fats in cheap products such as sausages, pastries, pork pies, margarines etc. READ the label. Avoid these at all costs!

Additives and other ingredients

If there are ingredients that I don’t have in my kitchen or I don’t know what they are, I aim to avoid them.
Here are some things you may not know!

• Natural Flavour is from natural food sources.

• Natural Flavouring is made from chemicals using the same chemical formula as the natural ingredient.

• Flavouring is completely artificial.

• Fillers, Stabilisers and Gums are all used to bulk up the product. Mostly used in low fat products such as mayo!

• Hydrogenated fats are fats heated to high temperatures becoming very toxic.

• Added vitamins means the product does not naturally contain these or it has been stripped out in the processing of the food. They then have to add it back in! Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up!!

• Low fat equals high sugar.

• Low sugar equals high fat.

• Authentic, Fresh, Country Style, Farmhouse, Pure and Natural are all meaningless.

• Reduced salt and Lite Options are all supposed to have less than the original product, however this still means that they are a high salt/fat/sugar option and often results in people eating more of it!

• Colourings and additives are not always bad for example vitamin C is also referred to as E300-304, beetroot is E162. There are a lot that are ok but too many to list.

• E numbers to avoid include sunset yellow E110 as well as E102(tartrazine), 104 (quinoline yellow), 122 (carmoisine), 124 (ponceau 4R), 129 (allura red) & 142 (green), 211 (benzoate).

There are also concerns around the colour blue!

If you have any kids with asthma or gut issues, I would avoid MSG (mono-sodium glutamate).

Really the best way to avoid these nasty chemicals is to eat real food and watch what you drink.

Blue slushie – anyone!?


Know your products. Research them, compare them to other brands. Ask yourself the question – could I make this myself?

Aim for less than 5 ingredients on the list. If a product has more than 5, I’m dubious and will look more closely before deciding if I want to put it in my body!

Avoid high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and the additives listed above.

Look at the serving size. Each label usually has a table that gives you the nutrient information per 100g and for the serving size. Check the serving size and ask yourself – is this the amount I’m eating (you would not believe how often we are eating an entire packet of something when the serving size is 1/4!!!).

Then look at the amount you are eating and see how much is coming from sugar (look at the section that says ‘of which sugars…’), from salt, from fat. Is it a sensible amount?

To help you:
Figures per 100g

This is a lot 

Sugar 10g
Sodium / Salt 0.5g / 1.25g
Total Fat 20g
Saturated Fat 5g

This is a little

Sugar  2g
Sodium / Salt  0.1g / 0.25g
Total Fat  3g
Saturated Fat 1g

Please let me know if this article has helped you to select the best products for you and your family.

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