Food Labels - What Do They Really Mean And What To Look Out For!

Know Your Food Labels - What Do They Really Mean And What To Look Out For!


29 April 2015


Pegaga sale

As busy adults, we try to be as healthy as possible, but you know, that’s not always possible. While we might have the best intentions at heart and try to eat ‘clean’, ‘fresh’ products, manufacturers are always a step ahead of us when it comes to packaging.

These days almost everything comes with an ‘organic’ or ‘gluten-free’ or some other buzzword label. It’s hard to discern what is actually good for you, and what is just some marketing fluff. I sat down with our PurelyB expert Carina Lipold and we hashed out a few things that you should look out for when checking out labels.

Let’s start with the ingredient list. When looking at packaged foods - although this isn’t always the rule - the less ingredients the better. If you see a long list of ingredients it’s usually stuff they have to add to preserve the ‘food’ and that doesn’t translate as something good for your body.

Watch out for:

MSG / Monosodium Glutamate

Ah the dreaded MSG. We can’t seem to avoid it when it comes to a lot of Malaysian food.

It helps to enhance the flavor of food, but alsogives headache and damages your body. Not to mention it makes you hungrier the more you eat. Lots of chips have MSG in them, which is why you feel like eating more and more!

Artificial colorings & flavouring

Artificial color and flavorings might not seem like a big deal because most of the time we don’t even notice it. It just blends in and makes everything look and taste better. But don’t be fooled, continuous intake will slowly add up.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils

In nature most vegetable oils are liquid oils and they are “forced” to be solid through a process called hydrogenation – which then turns it into trans fat. Trans fat is considered by most doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. It gets digested as a regular fat molecule however in reality  it’s actually a ‘dead’ molecule that the body uses as building material. Contrary to popular belief that cholesterol is bad for you, our cells are actually made out of cholesterol (which is essentially fat) and if all these cells are being made out of ‘dead’ molecules then they become non-reactive and diseases appear.


Sugar is one of those new foods that people love to hate - and for good reason. For the longest time sugar has been something that is always good in ‘moderation’ but now we are slowly realising that sugar is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. They sneak sugar in almost every place they can because it just makes things taste better and is very addictive. So having sugar that you are aware about in ‘moderation’ is not enough anymore, because you’re eating more than you realise. Manufacturers often list sugar under different names so we don’t realise we’re eating it, but you know better. Look out for names that end with the -ose suffix such as fructose, sucrose, glucose etc. These are all names for sugar. However even if it doesn’t end with -ose doesn’t mean it isn’t sugar. These are all also different types of sugars that give the same result: corn syrup, agave, cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, beet sugar etc. Check this page out for a complete list.

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Look beyond the front of the package

Most packaging is designed with what the manufacturer wants you to believe about the product in mind. So packages that proudly state, ‘Fat Free!’ or ‘Low fat!’ are there to catch your attention, but you know better! Read the back of packages to get the real deal. Fat free food is replaced by sugar - otherwise the item loses its consistency, not to mention taste.

Another good example is ‘Whole Grain’ labels on cereals. Check out the label in the back to see just how much whole grain is in the cereal before purchasing. Many times the whole grain content is only a small percentage. Whole grain bread can sometimes be colored to look that way, with only a small percentage of actual whole grain in the loaf.

Check the ingredient order

When reading labels pay attention to the order the ingredients are listed. The first ingredient listed is also the main ingredient in the product. So if it says: sugar, wheat, etc – you know your product is mostly made out of sugar. Therefore whatever you buy, check what comes first.

To sum it up:

  • The less ingredients, the better it should be for you.
  • If you don’t understand what’s on the label, it’s generally not good for you.
  • First listed ingredient = main ingredient in the product.

Nutrition Label

Portion Size

Portion sizes is something that we usually breeze by because we’re so busy checking for other things in the product.  But it’s important to check the portion size that the nutrition values are calculated for – sometimes it’s only for one tiny piece of the whole packet (like one cookie). So you might think that you’re not consuming much, but in reality the calculation might only be for a tiny piece.

Detailed breakdown

Be sure to check out the sugar, carbohydrates, fibre and sodium content to get a better understanding of your product and not just the calorie count. When it comes to packaged products (and all food really), ingredients are more important than calories. Be sure to see just how much the daily value (DV) of each category is. The DV is based on a 100% daily nutrient intake. So if you’re having a cookie and it each serving has sugar with a DV of 40%, then if you have more than 2 cookies, you’re going beyond your daily needed intake of sugar (the total would be 120% - 20% more than what you should be having). This also means if you eat any more sugar elsewhere then you’re eating even more extra sugar you don’t need.

Hopefully this short guide will help you look out for you and your family when buying food in the future. Good luck and happy shopping!