Nutrition information is very useful for us to make healthy food choices. Information provided in nutrition facts on food and drinks unfortunately varies from country to country, because no consistent global labeling rules exist. Nutrition facts also cover different nutrients. As a consequence, my Food Traffic Lights focuses on the 4 most important nutrients, i.e., fat, saturates, sugar, and salt / sodium, as well as calories. The 4 nutrients are the ones generally eaten in adequate amounts or even too much.
The amount of energy in food or drinks is measured in the unit calories. The energy content of food and drinks can be expressed in kilocalories (kcal), kilojoules (kJ), or in both. The large calorie or kilogram calorie, also known as the food calorie, is equal to 1,000 small calories or 1 kcal. In my Food Traffic Lights, we only use the unit kcal for calories to keep it simple and consistent.
Your body needs calories to keep you alive and your organs functioning normally. All biological processes in your body require energy. When you eat and drink, you put calories into your body. Your body uses up these calories through everyday movement, which includes everything from breathing to running.
To maintain a stable weight, the calories, which you put into your body, must be the same as the calories, which you use by normal bodily functions and physical activity. When you eat and drink more calories than you use up, your body stores the excess calories as body fat. If this continues over time, you may put on weight. One of the health risks of a weight gain can be overweight. Overweight can especially increase your health risks of:
Fat serves both as energy sources for the body and as storage for energy in excess of what the body needs immediately. Each gram of fat when burned releases energy. In my Food Traffic Lights, fat refers to the total amount of fat in food or drinks.
Fat is an important and necessary nutrient. Its energy value is more than two times higher than the values of carbohydrates and proteins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they can only be digested, absorbed, and transported in conjunction with fat. Fat plays a vital role in maintaining healthy skin and hair, insulating body organs against shock, maintaining body temperature, and promoting healthy cell function. Fat also serves as a useful buffer against a host of diseases.
When we eat and drink more fat and thus, calories than we use up, our bodies store the excess as body fat. If this continues over time, we may put on weight. Consuming too much fat and thus, energy increases the health risk of overweight. Overweight can especially increase your health risks of:
Saturates are also referred to as saturated fat. Saturates are a part of the total amount of fat (see above). Because saturates are a type of fat, they also serve both as energy sources for the body and as storage for energy in excess of what the body needs immediately. Each gram of fat when burned releases energy.
Most animal fats are saturated. The fats of plants and fish are generally unsaturated. Kinds of foods that can be high in saturates include pizza, pies, cakes, biscuits, butter, cheese, cream, other whole milk dairy products, fatty cuts of meat, sausage and bacon. But, also certain vegetable products have a high saturates content, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
Fat and thus, also saturates are an important and necessary nutrient and serve both structural and metabolic functions. The same benefits as described above for fat mentioned above apply for saturates.
The same disadvantages as described above for fat apply for saturates. If consumed in too high amounts, saturates especially increase your cholesterol levels.
Sugar is the generic name for sweet, soluble carbohydrates. Sugars listed in nutrition labels on food and drinks include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk) as well as sugars added to food and drinks. So-called added sugars refer to sugars added to food and drinks by manufacturers, cooks, or consumers. Even though added sugars have a high calorie and consequently, energy content, the energy is only short lived, because added sugars lack dietary fiber and nutritious value.
If you are concerned about your intake of sugars, check the ingredient list of your food and drinks for specifics on added sugars. Make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients in the ingredient list as these are the ingredients with high amounts in a product. Names for added sugars as ingredients include: corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping your sugar intake below 10% of your daily energy consumption. The WHO recommendation does not refer to sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars. In my Food Traffic Lights, we follow the WHO's recommendation by including it into our Standard Formula. Further, we also apply it in cases where national food authorities do not publish a recommendation for a Daily Amount of sugar for whatever reason.
Sugar serves as energy source for your body. The digestion of sugar is faster than the digestion of fat. When you select natural sources of sugar, they also include important healthy nutrients. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk all provide natural sugars in addition to fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Health risks associated with high sugar intake include especially overweight and tooth decay. Overweight can especially increase your health risks of:
As already mentioned, added sugars lack dietary fiber and nutritious value.
Some countries use salt and some countries use sodium in their nutrition labels to basically explain to you the same. E.g., table salt is a refined salt containing about 98% sodium. Sodium is a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of salts.
Salt is essential to your health because it is an important source of minerals and electrolytes for your body and it regulates the amount of water in and around your body cells.
Health risks associated with high salt intake especially include high blood pressure.