If you cook everything from scratch then you can have a good idea about what is in your food but if, like most of us, you use packets, jars or cans, then reading the labels can help you to make some great choices. Learning how to read ingredient lists and nutrition labels can help you to navigate the supermarket shelves and get some great convenience into your nutrition plan.


Ingredients List

Want to reduce fat and sugar?  Look at the ingredients. The first ingredient listed is the one that is there in the largest amount.  The next ingredient is there in the second largest amount and so on all the way to the last ingredient, which is there in the smallest amount.  So if oil, butter, cream or sugar come first, then that food is probably going to be high in calories! If tuna or sweetcorn comes first, then that will be there in the largest amount.  Get into the habit of looking at the ingredients in foods, especially if it is the first time you are buying it.


Nutrition table

The nutrition table is the grid on the back of the pack which tells you about the energy or calories, as well as the fat, protein, salt, sugar and sometimes fibre.  All nutrition tables will tell you about the nutrients that are found in 100g of the food.  This is useful because then you can compare it to other, similar foods – for example if you want to compare the amounts of fat in two different brands of salad dressing so don’t only look at the serving size which can be misleading.

What is high and what is low when it comes to fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar?

Remember: not everything you eat has to be low in fat, salt, sugar etc.  If you tried to eat like this you would end up living on just vegetables! Low to moderate levels are fine and keep an eye on how many high level foods you choose in total over the day. Remember some very healthy foods like olive oil or nuts will be high in fat – and this is fine as long as you keep an eye on portion sizes.




Low calorie is 40 calories or less per 100g of a solid food 




Low fat is 3g of fat or less per 100g

     High fat is 17g of fat or more per 100g

Saturated Fat


Low in saturated fat is less than 1.5 g of saturated fat per 100g

     High in saturated fat is more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g



Low sugar is less than 5g of sugar per 100g

     High sugar is more than 22g of sugar per 100g

Salt and Sodium


Sodium is no longer shown on standard food labelling and is now expressed only in its salt form. Low salt is less than 0.3g of salt per 100g. Very low salt is less than 0.1g

     High salt is more than 1.5g of salt per 100g




A food that is a source of fibre is one that has 3g of fibre per 100g

     A high fibre food has more than 6g of fibre per 100g


Some pre-packaged foods with benefits

Dried foods like pasta and rice are great store cupboard standbys.  Canned beans like chickpeas and kidney beans make a great base for soups, salads and vegetarian meals.  Tinned fish like tinned salmon or tuna are great sources of protein and easy to add to pasta sauces for a quick dinner.



Sarah Keogh

Consultant Nutritionist - MSc., BSc., MINDI

Sarah has a degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from Trinity College and a Masters in European Food Regulation. 

She runs a food and nutrition consultancy giving one-to-one advice on nutrition and diet as well as working with some of Ireland's leading food companies.