San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Read labels and stay thinner

People who read nutritional labels can be as many as four kilos thinner than those who don’t. This is a rather sensational claim from three universities that collaborated on a study investigating the relationship between reading food labels and levels of obesity using data from the USA National Health Interview Survey.

Julie Godfrey

Julie Godfrey

This weight difference is debatable, as the 4 kilos was estimated from a reported 1.49 reduction in body mass index stated by participants of the survey. But then again, it does open up the discussion for the importance of nutritional labelling and even more importantly, the correct interpretation of these. One word of initial advice, take your reading glasses or a magnifying glass to the supermarket, as the small print on labels can be very small.

So what to look for? It can be quite a minefield, and going through it all easily fills a two-hour seminar, but here are some of the major considerations. Understand that you will be better informed if you look at both the nutritional information and the list of ingredients.

First, work through the ingredients to see how many of them you understand. While calories do matter for weight control, the form that these calories come in is also important. Highly processed foods can release energy too quickly, whereas foods closer to their natural state often release energy more slowly which is better for weight control. A product with lots of difficult to recognise ingredients in the list usually translates to a more refined product. If more than a quarter of the ingredients are not items you could buy to make the product yourself, then it is probably best to steer clear.

Values are often given per portion which can be misleading. Practice some mental maths (or challenge your children to work it out), as 15 grams of sugar per serving doesn’t sound too bad if you stick to one serving. Nevertheless, if the serving size is 30 grams, this translates to a more alarming 50 percent. And really, who ever stops at one serving? 

Train your sweet tooth to expect less sugar and restrict products which contain items ending in ~ose, for example, glucose, maltose, sucrose, fructose etc., high on the ingredients list. Fructose is not necessarily accounted for as a sugar because it is processed differently in the body to glucose and consequently many people look for fructose-sweetened products. Take care though, because it is now being recognized that a high intake of fructose can also contribute to weight gain and metabolic syndrome.

Some fat is fine, especially if it is labelled as polyunsaturated or monosaturated, but try and stay away from trans fats. Products labelled as 0g trans fat can contain up to almost 0.5g per serving. If the ingredients list states partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it is likely to contain trans fats. Fully hydrogenated or non hydrogenated oils as an ingredient are a safer bet.

Good luck on your next supermarket trip. I will be looking out for people squinting at the backs of packets and children concentrating on calculating percentages of sugar/fat next time I am shopping.

Julie Godfrey BSc (Hons) is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). See or email

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