Dr Libby: How To Read Food Labels (And What To Watch For)

By Dr Libby Weaver
Understanding the nutritional information on food labels can help you make healthier choices. Photo / Getty Images

Because ‘fat-free’ can still mean ‘loaded with sugar’.

You may not realise it, yet stepping into a supermarket immerses us in an intense realm of advertising strategies.

Everything from how items are arrayed on shelves to the hues and wording on product packaging is meticulously crafted to entice us into

Not every processed food item is on the same level as far as our nourishment goes.

Sadly, a significant number of these products lack nutritional value, contributing little to our wellbeing. Often, they also contain substances that can potentially disrupt aspects of our health such as preservatives, additives and additional sugars.

There is a prevailing belief that because it’s on a shelf, it must be fine and unfortunately, this is not the case. For one, there are plenty of substances that are added to packaged foods that are not robustly tested.

Plus, any testing is usually done in isolation — testing one substance at low levels over a brief period. Yet, what this fails to take into consideration is how often these substances are consumed alongside other substances and their impact across years or decades.

Why it’s important to read food labels

Getting into the habit of reading the ingredients list of any packaged or canned food you are considering purchasing is by far the best way to ensure you’re not consuming too many problematic substances or ultra-processed foods that lack nourishment. As consumers, we need to become detectives of our own processed food choices.

In today’s supermarket landscape, the average consumer is navigating through a dense forest of jargon, buzzwords, and claims. “Natural”, “free-range”, “non-GMO” — these are just a handful of the terms emblazoned across food packaging, each carrying its own weight and meaning.

Yet, without a compass of understanding, these labels can lead to confusion rather than informed choices. In a world where “fat-free” can still mean “loaded with sugar,” and “made with real fruit” might translate to “contains a trace of fruit concentrate,” our scrutiny is our best defence.

How to identify potentially misleading packaging claims

One of the best things you can do when selecting products from the supermarket shelf is ignore everything on the front of the packaging and turn it around to inspect the ingredients and, to a lesser extent, the nutritional panel list.

The front of the package is designed to sell. “No added sugar”, for example, might not mean the product is low in sugar — it could still be high in natural sugars, and while a better choice, this is still something we want to ideally keep to a minimum. It can also mean that other sweeteners such as sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners have been used instead, which have been shown to cause digestive upsets, unfavourable changes to the gut microbiome, and in some cases raise blood glucose and insulin levels.

‘A source of’ specific vitamins or minerals most often means that lab-formulated nutrients are added back in at the end of the manufacturing process, which strips away all real nutrition.

‘All natural ingredients’ might mean that nothing artificial has been added, however, it says little about the quality or nourishment of what the product is made of. It’s the back of the packaging that always tells the true story.

What to look for in the ingredients list

The ingredients are listed by quantity, from the highest to the lowest. If the list begins with any form of sugar or filler ingredients (think soy lecithin, any kind of vegetable oil or any words that you can’t identify as originating from real food), this is a product best avoided. In fact, a product that lists any ingredient you can’t identify as originating from whole, real food, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf.

Words ending in “-ose” are typically sugars, while “hydrogenated oils” and “fats” speak for themselves. Industrialised seed oils — which may be listed as “vegetable oil” — are widespread through packaged foods and, as they contain pro-inflammatory drivers, they are best minimised or avoided where possible.

Keep an eye out for the length of the ingredients list too — generally speaking, shorter lists are an indicator of less processing.

Another thing to note is that manufacturers may also include two or more different types of sugars — such as glucose, fructose or corn syrup — so that they sit further down the list to trick the consumer into thinking there’s not as much sugar in the product. This is where using the nutrition label can help.

How to read the nutrition panels

Here’s the thing about nutrition panels. The ingredients list is where you want to focus most of your attention, but this panel can also be helpful when trying to decipher more about what’s inside.

For example, if you’re looking at a product that contains sugar, such as kombucha, looking at the sugar content in the nutrition information panel can help you ascertain how much sugar remains in the product (all kombucha will have sugar in the ingredients list as it is needed for the fermentation process, however, a lot of this is used up by bacteria during fermentation). This can help you to identify a lower-sugar option.

When comparing options, be aware that what is considered a “serving size” won’t necessarily be the same across different brands, and it may not necessarily match what you’d consider a standard serving quantity either. If you want to compare similar products, using the quantity per 100ml or per 100g column can help to ensure you’re comparing like with like.

Tips for mindful grocery shopping

If you’re looking at the sugars amount in the nutritional information panel on other products, also be aware that this doesn’t differentiate between intrinsic sugars (sugar that occurs naturally in a food, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy milk) and added sugars. This is another reason why it’s a good idea to read the ingredients list so you know what the product is really made up of.

Really, the best way to cut through food label confusion is to primarily eat whole, real foods that are as close to how they come from nature as possible.

Nonetheless, the convenience and at times, necessity of opting for some processed or packaged goods exists for most of us, so hopefully this helps you to make more informed choices when it comes to what you choose to purchase.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker. Her ’Detox by Dr Libby’ course helps people to reduce their total body burden, for more information visit Drlibby.com

More from Dr Libby

From nutrition tips to understanding your body.

How many fruit and vegetables do we really need to eat? On organic food, gut health and the One Teaspoon Challenge.

The importance of iron (and what to do if you think you’re deficient). It plays a key role in energy, detoxification and thyroid function.

What happens when you don’t have enough ‘beauty sleep’? And how can you encourage a good night’s sleep?

What to know about hormone imbalances. From sex hormones to stress hormones.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: