Useful tips on how to read food labels

It’s difficult to know exactly what we should eat. Of course, for raw products, it’s easy, after all an apple is an apple, but for all our processed foods it’s quite complicated … And yes, have you ever tried to decrypt the labels on packaging? Between nutritional values, the list of ingredients, the expiry date and nutritional claims, we no longer know where to turn. Some information is put forward and others, written in very small, is completely forgotten even though they can be equally important. So, here are some tips that should help you see things more clearly.

1. Look at the length of the list of ingredients.

There’s no need to go into much detail, the length of the list is already a very good indicator of the quality of a product.

If the list is short, we are getting closer to the raw original product. Few artificial products have been added to improve the appearance and taste of the product.

Conversely if the list is long, it usually means that the product is full of extra ingredients, ingredients that you would not put in if the recipe was homemade. What are these ingredients? Fat, sugar, additives: dyes, flavours, texture agents, food preservatives etc. They are used to improve the taste, the colour, the texture, and the conservation of the products. If you hesitate between two products choose the one with the shortest ingredient list!

2. The names of the ingredients

After analysing the length of the list, let’s look at the content! It’s a lot more pleasant to be able to recognise the ingredients on the packaging. Take a closer look at the products whose ingredients you understand, forget the products containing E107 etc …

3. The order of the ingredients

The order of ingredients on the list is also important. The first ingredient listed is found in larger quantities in the product and the latter in smaller quantities. This allows you to work out if the order of ingredients is consistent with the product. For example, if sugar is one of the first three ingredients in a sweet product then there’s nothing too much to worry about. Nevertheless, if you find it in third place in a dish made from dough and vegetables then it’s not coherent with the product, neither in terms of quantity or its nutritional value. E.g. Sugar is the 2nd ingredient in a prepared tomato sauce. Why? Perhaps it’s so as to remove the acidity of the tomato or to rebalance a significant amount of salt?

The quality of the product is therefore questioned, and why DON’T WE JUST MAKE SOME HOME-MADE TOMATO SAUCE FROM OUR OVER-RIPE TOMATOES?

4. Look carefully at what the product claims!

Last but not least, the claims. You know all these mini claims on the packages that make you choose a product: “high in fibre”, “sugar-free”, “calcium source” … Despite that these claims are highly regulated and that they are justified by the content of the nutrient in the food, they do not certify the quality of a product. Because a product “low in sugars” is generally very high in fat, which is often the case in cereal bars. Be wary and use common sense. Do not worry, let’s take stock!


First of all, it is important to differentiate between health claims and nutritional claims.

  • Health claims

Health claims refer to a nutrient’s capacity to benefit our health. A health claim can claim to reduce the risks of a contracting a disease (e.g. “omega 3 reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease”) but it can not claim to cure a disease, because nutritional science is a gentle and preventative medicine.

  • The different nutritional claims

An claim is called nutritional when it refers to the content of a nutrient in a food product. For example, when it says “rich in calcium” “source of” or “lacking in”. We will not detail all the claims because there are so many, but we will look at those that need to be clarified.

“Enriched in”.

This claim occurs when a nutrient has been added industrially to a product, such as the addition of vitamins or minerals as a result of their loss during the process or simply enriched to meet a public health measure such as iodine in salt. The content is thus doubled, but unfortunately it isn’t usually absorbed and assimilated by the body as nutrients found naturally in food.

“No sugars”, “No added sugars”, and “Low sugar” What are the differences?

Take care, all these claims are not equal!

  • For a product to be stamped “sugar-free”, it must contain less than 0.5 g of sugar per 100 g. When we talk about sugars, we’re talking about monosaccharides (glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose) but not sweeteners. Therefore, a sugar-free product is very likely to have a high content of sweeteners such as aspartame or polyols (xylitol, sorbitol). And as we are well aware, their effects on health remain controversial.
  • Sugar-free added means that no sugar or sweetener has been added to the product during preparation. The product contains only natural sugar in raw foods; it is therefore this type of product we should be looking for. Nowadays, there are several types of sugar-free compotes which are suitable for children!
  • A product low in sugar is a product that contains – 30% sugars compared to an other similar product. For example a typical compote contains on average 20g of sugar, the light version contains on average 15g whereas the version without added sugars contains 12g per 100g. If we were happy with that then it would be simple. But the problem is that some products, supposedly low in sugars of a certain brand, end up having more sugar than the same version of another brand … Yeah, i know, we’re making life difficult. Hence, the importance of not just reading the claims, but reading the nutritional values.

“Light” and “lightened”

This is a comparative claim that positions the food product against other products in the same category. This statement can only be made if the reduction in the ‘lightened’ content is at least 30% less to a similar product and the nutrient to which the claim refers to must be specified. Lightened products are not as beneficial as they first appear because removing material from a food product has its consequences, in addition to changing its nutritional value, it will change its texture and taste. Something which manufacturers then have to reestablish.

With all this information, i’m hoping things will be a bit clearer. The claims are mostly made to make you want to buy a certain product. Their registration is not mandatory, so just because a product does not claims to be this or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its content is not nutritionally beneficial. Therefore, always keep a critical eye on the packaging! There is no good or bad brand, every product is different. It may be that some products of a brand are very good and other products of the same brand aren’t. So be careful, and take a few minutes to read the packaging, especially the nutritional values which are ultimately the most reliable. Your body will thank you for it.

However, if you are looking for advice do not hesitate to contact us via the MAIA COACH app by taking a photo of your dish, or a photo of the product and you will receive immediate professional advice from our coaches.

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