How to read food labels

Reading a food label on food packaging

Reading a food label on food packaging

On the popular Sugar Crash documentary aired on RTE earlier this year, a comment was made that you need to have a degree in nutrition and a magnifying glass to read food labels! Well this article should take the mystery out of it and you certainly don’t need to be a nutritionist to do your weekly grocery shop when following Atkins!

There are two main parts of the label you need to look at – the ingredients listing and the carb amount. That’s it. Here are the things we don’t need to worry about on the packaging or food label:

  • Calorie amounts. On Atkins we just need to count carbs – not calories. The only time you would need to look at the calories or portion size is if you have been sticking to the Acceptable Food List and carb amounts but have not lost weight in 4 weeks. Anything less than 4 weeks could just be a weight loss plateau.
  • Portion sizes. The portion sizes on many foods are often a lot lower than you might imagine so we will not look at the carbs per serving but at the amount of carbs per 100g and making a rough guess at how much of eat you would eat with your meal. However overall on Atkins, you will find that you feel fuller and you don’t get hungry soon after a meal.  Eating protein and fat is more satiating than high carb foods and you will be able to get let your appetite dictate your portion sizes. The only time you might need to revisit portion sizes is if you are not losing weight despite following Atkins to the letter.
  • Claims like “Low fat”, “Low in Saturates”, “Virtually Fat Free”, “Reduced Fat”. Eating fat does not make us get fat – eating too much carbs does. Also eating fat is not bad for our hearts (unless it is a trans fat). In fact, I would always advise avoiding any foods that say “Low Fat” because invariably they are higher in carbs than their regular versions. For example, low fat mayonnaise is higher in carbs than regular mayonnaise. Likewise with milk, cheeses and many other products because when manufacturers take out the fat, it doesn’t taste good so they add in sugar which increases the carb count.
  • Claims like “light” or “lite”. These terms don’t mean anything in relation to food and can be used by anyone on any product. And again we don’t need to worry about the fat content.
  • “High Fibre”. You will find that you are eating much less processed foods on Atkins and much more vegetables so buying foods high in fibre should not be necessary.

So now that we know what information is irrelevant for our purposes, what do you need to look at on food labels when doing your food shopping?


Ingredients on any food label have to be listed in descending order i.e. largest ingredient first. What we are looking for in the ingredients list is sugar or other unacceptable ingredients like hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans fats. Sugar goes by many different names – see the ‘Spot the Sugar’ bar at the bottom of this page for its different aliases. Avoid foods that contain any of these. Also avoid any foods with ingredients not suitable for the phase you are in. For example, if you are in Induction and the product contains kidney beans or rice or fruit, then it is best not to eat it until you have reached that phase.

Carb amounts

In Ireland, when looking at the carbohydrate amount, we just look at the total carb amount on the food label per 100g. No need to subtract grams of fibre as they do in the US. Read more about this in our article on Counting Carbs in Ireland. So once the ingredient list does not contain any hidden sugars or other unsuitable ingredients, the number written after Total Carbs will tell you everything else you need to know.

So for instance, lets say you are in Induction and you are looking at a tin Batchelors Peas that weighs 170g (drained). The food label says there are 18g of carbs in 100g drained. If you ate half a tin of peas with your dinner this would be 9g of carbs. This is a bit high when your daily limit is 20g. (Also tinned peas often have added sugar – see example below).

Natural Sugar versus Added Sugar

While this is not necessary to understand when trying to decide if a food is suitable or not, it can be useful to understand the difference. Natural sugar is one that occurs naturally in a food – for example lactose is a sugar that is found naturally in milk. Fructose is found in apples. So products containing vegetables, fruits, wholegrains or dairy products contain naturally occurring sugars. Added sugars or ‘hidden sugars’ as they are often called are ones that are added in by the manufacturer. These are the ones we want to avoid. You will know if a food contains one of these as it will be listed in the ingredients (and the total carbs will probably be quite high). See the list at the bottom of the page for all the names used for sugar on food labels. So here are some claims you might see on food packaging that may be useful as additional information:

  • Claims like “Low Sugar” or “Reduced Sugar”. Low sugar means that it has less than 5g of sugar per 100g and reduced sugar means that the food has 25% less sugar than the standard product, However this means they still contain added sugar so should be avoided.
  • Claims like “No Added Sugar”. This means that it contains no added sugar which is good although it may still contain natural sugars so check the total carbs to see whether it is acceptable.
  • The claim “Sugar Free” means it has no added sugar or naturally occurring sugar like the sugar naturally found in milk or fruit. Only oils, fats and a few types of meat are naturally sugar free.

Some Examples

The following image (click on it to see a larger version) shows the food label on a tin of peas and the label on frozen peas. First of all the ingredients list on the tinned peas lists the third ingredient as sugar – so one to avoid. This is reflected in the high carb amount of 18g per hundred grams. Why sugar has to be added to peas is beyond me.. However the frozen peas has 7.4g of peas and the ingredients list has just one ingredient – peas! So this is a much better option and is suitable in phase one. Obviously fresh peas would be good too.

Peas - nutritional labels on tinned versus frozen

Peas – food labels on tinned versus frozen

Yogurts are usually seen as a very healthy food and they can be but not all are created equally! Many yogurts especially flavored ones and those marketed at childen can have incredible amounts of sugar. The following compares Blueberry Greek style yogurt and whole yogurt. The flavored yogurt contains 14g of carbs as opposed to 9g of carbs in the unflavored yogurt. There is added sugar in the form of ‘Organic Cane Sugar’ in the flavored yogurt – sugar is sugar whether it is organic or not. Once you are in phase two and have added yogurt to your diet, the whole natural (or unflavored Greek yogurt) would be fine and you could have some fresh berries with it.

Food labels on fruit yogurt verus unflavored whole yogurt

Food labels on fruit yogurt versus unflavored whole yogurt

Sauces often contain added sugar as does the Dolmio sauce in this example. It is the forth ingredient in the list. There are 7.6g of carbs per 100g of sauce so if you used half a jar for your meal it would be 19g of carbs. On the other hand, the tinned tomatoes has just 3g of carbs per 100g and a much shorter ingredients list that does not feature sugar. This would be perfect to use in dishes like Low Carb Chilli Con Carne.

Food label on Dolmio sauce versus tinned tomatoes

Food labels on Dolmio sauce versus tinned tomatoes

This example showing regular mayonnaise and “Light Reduced Calorie” mayonnaise is a good example of low-fat options being higher in carbs and their full fat versions. The regular mayonnaise has 1.3g of carbs as opposed to 5.9g of carbs. There is some added sugar in the regular version unfortunately but as you would typically eat much less than 100g of mayonnaise per serving  it is safe enough to eat in phase one in my opinion.

Food label on regular versus low fat mayonnaise

Food labels on regular versus low fat mayonnaise

Hopefully this will help with understanding food labels and whether or not a product is suitable or not for you no matter what stage you are at in your Atkins journey.

Spot the Sugar

  • Brown sugar
  • Brown syrup
  • Cane juice
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Crystallized cane juice
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Fruit syrups
  • Galactose
  • Glucose
  • Glucose-derived syrup
  • Golden syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Levulose
  • Malt
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Rapadura
  • Raw sugar
  • Rice syrup
  • Surcose (table sugar – not to be confused with sucralose, a substitute sweetener marketed as Splenda)
  • Sweetened carob powder
  • Treacle
  • Turbinado

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