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Your guide to understanding common terms on food packaging

The first step to eating a healthy, balanced diet is understanding what exactly is in the food products you buy. But sifting through the jargon on the back of every food you eat can be a little overwhelming.

With that in mind, we’ve put together this handy glossary of some of the most common terms you’ll see on the back of many food packets.

Calories

Kilocalories and kilojoules are the measurement of energy within food. You’ll see both on a packet, but in Ireland we use kilocalories, while other regions in the world use kilojoules.

Macronutrients and micronutrients

Macronutrients are the type of food that make up the vast majority of your diet. Altogether, they are fat, proteins and carbohydrates. Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are required in smaller amounts.

Carbohydrates

There are two types of carbohydrates that the body converts to energy – simple and complex. When looking at the label, you will often see total carbohydrates and then the figure for simple carbohydrates expressed by “Carbohydrates (of which sugars)”.

We should get most of our energy from complex carbohydrates rather than sugars. These include starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, bread, etc. Complex carbohydrates that are higher in fibre are also a good choice, such as wholegrain options like brown rice and whole wheat pasta.

Fats

There are two types of fat: unsaturated and saturated. You’ll see a breakdown of total fat content in the food, as well as saturated and unsaturated. It’s advisable to cut down on the level of saturated fat you eat a day in order to keep cholesterol at healthy levels.

There are also trans fats. These fats not only lower your good HDL cholesterol level, but raise your harmful LDL cholesterol level. Some meat and dairy products contain naturally occurring trans fats, but in the main, they are produced by the industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil for a longer shelf life. This is commonly seen in baked goods, potato snacks, margarine and fried food. These foods should have a limited place in a healthy diet.

Protein

Protein is necessary for the body to grow and also repair damage. Protein-rich foods include meat, lentils, nuts and fish.

Vitamins and minerals

Food packaging also gives a breakdown of the vitamin and mineral content – but of course, not all foods contain them! You’ll see this expressed as a percentage RDA, which stands for ‘recommended daily allowance’. The higher the better, as this means the food contains more nutrients.

Once you go over the RDA of a vitamin or mineral, your body will generally excrete the excess.  However, some vitamins are fat-soluble, such as A, D, E and K, and therefore not as easily excreted. You should watch out for this if you are on a special or restricted diet – for example, levels of potassium may be monitored if you have heart issues. It is always better to aim for balance rather than excess.

Sugar

Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, such as fruit and milk. It is rarely these types of sugar that we need to cut down on in our diet. Eating too much of the sugar that is added to foods like biscuits, cake, chocolate, fizzy drinks and sweets etc puts you at risk of obesity and tooth decay.

Salt

The salt breakdown on food packaging should include naturally occurring salts within food and also that which is added to food, for example in raising agents or other additives. This is one to watch out for if you have high blood pressure, as too much can raise it further. This puts you at a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

Forewarned is forearmed! Once you know exactly what’s in the foods you buy, it’ll help you to make healthier choices that’ll make you feel good.

Want to read more about healthy lifestyles for families? Find lots more right here.