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Understanding your supermarket food labels

Isn’t it great to have so much choice when we go to the supermarket now!

Shopping isles are crammed full of packaged foods all claiming to be healthy alternatives for your child’s lunch box.  But how do you really know they are nutritious and providing the right daily intake of sugar, salt and fat for your child?

We’ve taken a look at the key elements of packaged food labels to help you make the right choice every time for you and your family!


Monitor your daily allowance

Nutrition labels can help you eliminate bad foods and allow you to provide your family with a more balanced diet. By law, food producers have to list nutrition facts on packaged food in the same orderly fashion and always put the top ingredients in order. Some front-of-pack nutrition labels use red, amber and green colour coding. Colour-coded nutrition information tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of sugar, salt, fat, saturated fat:

RED means HIGH

In short, the more green on the label, the healthier the choice. If you buy a food that has all or mostly green on the label, you know straight away that it's a healthier choice. You can use these colour codes to help you plan your weekly shop.

Labels can be misleading


Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, but that doesn’t always give you the whole picture. Often ingredients go by names other than what we expect, so it might be that you think you are eating a low cholesterol diet but added sugars, saturated and trans fats and sodium can be called something else.

Take a jar of salsa... tomatoes will be the first on the list and it goes without saying that tomatoes are going to make up a lot of a tomato salsa based product. But there are many terms for sugar on food labels, so you might see sugar listed as the 3rd ingredient and think that is okay. But the 2nd ingredient is corn syrup which is also a term for sugar.

Sugar can be hidden

Common terms for sugar

Here are a few of the most common terms used for sugar on food labels:

Barley malt syrup
Corn syrup
Agave nectar
Dehydrated cane juice

Want to know more about sugar and the effects it has on children? Read our ‘Truth about Sugar’ blog.

Truth about sugar
How much salt are you consuming?


Sodium nitrite is a source of salt in our diets. It is in pretty much all processed foods from hot dogs, luncheon meats to preserved fish and meats.

Salt raises blood pressure and if high amounts are consumed daily then it can seriously increase the risk of heart disease or stroke.

The NHS recommend the daily salt intake for a child should be:

4 to 6 years – 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium)
7 to 10 years – 5g salt a day (2g sodium)
11 years and over – 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)

Check out what the NHS Recommend
Junk food

Trans Fat

Perhaps trickiest of all is trans fats. These will not be listed under ingredients but they are really bad for both children and adults if consumed regularly.

As we've mentioned before, a food label will list the ingredients in order of quantity, from most to least. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are listed early on the list and before polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils, you know the product contains lots of trans fat.

These fats raise bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. Look out for hydrogenated oil.

Common Bad Foods

Foods that we commonly feed our children which may have a high sugar, salt and trans fat content are bread products like crumpets, bagels and ciabatta, shop-bought pasta sauces, crisps, pizza, ready meals and surprisingly breakfast cereals, tomato ketchup and mayonnaise.

Most supermarkets will now stock branded ‘low sugar and salt’ products like Heinz or Kellogg’s so if your children will only eat their dinner with a dollop of ketchup then pick up the low sugar and salt version.

At SPR Juniors we love The Change4Life Food Scanner App.  It literally is a food scanner on your phone you just open the app, scan the bar-code on the food packet and it will tell you exactly how much of the bad stuff your food choice really contains – genius!

Five Limit Rule

Finally, experts recommend you should only really buy packaged food which contains five or fewer ingredients ‘the five-limit rule’ for your children.  It will help you quickly screen out the bad foods and hopefully change the way you shop for food for your children.  Obviously, if you have more time, then buying organic, unprocessed foods and ensuring your children eat at least 5 pieces of fruit and vegetables a day will only help them fuel their body and their minds.