A fairly common question that I get asked is “how do I actually read the nutritional labels on the back of food packaging? What is it that I am looking for?” The answer is pretty straight forward! Reading food labels is easy once you get the hang of it.
To summarise, there are three steps involved in reading food labels:
- Look out for the serving size you are consuming
- See if that is the “cooked” or “raw” value if applicable
- Then look for the calories and macronutrients on the packaging. Simple!
Firstly, let’s talk about serving sizes. In the UK, you will find that most food lists its nutritional value per 100 grams, as well as sometimes listing by “serving size” too. What you need to do is figure out how much of the food you are consuming at a given time. As this often will NOT be similar to the packaging’s listed serving size at all.
Let’s say you wanted to eat a bowl of porridge, using dry oats cooked with water. You might pour the dry porridge oats into a bowl and measure it (weight it) first. The dry measurement of the oats you intend to use comes to 60g. Then you look at the nutritional information label on the oats packet. You see that the serving size value listed on the packaging is for approximately 50g of oats dry / uncooked. So, in this case it wouldn’t be quite accurate to use their serving size figures. It would be best to calculate your own, for the 60g that you used.
So next you look at the nutritional values per 100g. And simply multiply the figures by 0.60, to get the 60g weight you intend to use.
See the picture below.
So as mentioned earlier, we intend to use 60g of oats to make our porridge. Therefore, if we read the nutritional info per 100g, take the 367 calories (listed under “Energy, kcal”). Multiply that by 0.60, which equals 220.2 calories for our 60g bowl of oats.
Next to calculate the “macronutrients”, so that’s the “protein”, “carbohydrates”, and “fat”. So as mentioned earlier, we intend to use 60g of oats to make our porridge. Therefore, if we read the nutritional info per 100g, take the listed fat value of 8.4g and multiply that by 0.60, which equals 5.04g. Therefore, we know that our bowl of porridge will have 5g of fat in.
Now let’s do the same for the carbohydrates, which is listed at 56g, so 56g multiplied by 0.60 equals 33.6g, so we now know that our porridge will have 33g of carbs in.
Same for protein, we calculate that our bowl will have 7.2g of protein in.
One other value we may be interested in, though this has much less significance, is the salt value. Generally, we want to keep this fairly low. But in the case of our porridge the value is zero, so it isn’t an issue at all! Likewise, one last value we may also want to check is the fibre value. Generally, the more fibre the better!
RI and RDA
Things like the “Reference Intake” (RI), or “Recommended Daily Allowance” (RDA) are usually of little value to us to be honest. These recommended calculations are often unsubstantiated and are often recommendations made for the average sedentary non-active person, with minimal muscle, high body fat, and no six pack. You can appreciate that the recommended calculations for the lean mean six-packer will be a lot different!
We have provided another example of a food nutritional label below.
This example is for a protein bar, and it is even easier to follow than the porridge example above. This nutritional label tells us the nutritional values “per bar”. This is perfect, as we do intend to eat all of it. Our serving size figure has 198 calories, 6.2g of fat, 2.6g of carbs, and 20.2g of protein. Perfect!
As well as listing nutritional information, food packaging should have a list of ingredients. Look out for added sugar. Sometimes it will be “disguised” by being listed as “glucose, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, syrup” or other names to avoid outright using the word “sugar”!
So, there you have it! Reading nutritional labels and figuring out your calories and macronutrients really isn’t difficult at all. No one is saying to become obsessed doing it. But in the least it can make you more mindful about the food and drink you consume. This can lead to you making better lifestyle choices, which can be only be a good thing!
Think twice before drinking that bottle of regular Coke – check the label! How many calories and grams of sugar and carbs are in it? Wow, is it worth it?! Wouldn’t you rather opt for Diet Coke and save those calories to be consumed elsewhere?
Obviously, calorie counting apps are very helpful to use when tracking the nutritional value of food. To read about using calorie counting apps, see my blog post HERE: