How to choose your food

Price per calories, food ingredients, and flavouring: Tesco Groceries UK

What do you care about when buying your food? The real price of your food? How simple the recipe is? Whether the taste reflects the freshness and quality of your food?

Essential Food Label simplifies your grocery shopping. You can get the Chrome extension at the link here: Essential Food Label. Your food label distilled into three items: price per kcalorie, number of ingredients, presence or absence of flavoring. The current version works for Tesco Groceries at

The free version gives you either the number of ingredients or the presence/absence of flavourings for all the products in your Tesco Groceries Basket.

How to choose your food without reading the label

Food and shelter are our basic needs. Food is the most intimate interaction we have with our environment. Today we constantly worry about food quality. Does it make sense to you to worry about food quality? How can food be bad for us? Did anyone in the 15th century ever worry whether what they ate was good for them or not? Is it because some of the stuff we call food is actually entertainment not food? Link here. Is it because now food comes in packages? Are we getting the best value for our money? One simple rule is the Lindy principle: only eat foods that have been around for a very long time; link here. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author who wrote in Antifragile about the Lindy principle drinks only water and wine. For Northern Europeans, we can safely add milk. That’s possibly all the liquids you should drink. This rule also correctly predicts that we should avoid sugar and not avoid fat. Fat has been in our diets for thousands of years, while sugar only for a couple of hundred years. Recent research shows that indeed, fat is OK for us, while sugar is not; link here.
With the number of products and the amount of information that comes with them, the food market has become utterly confusing. In short, we cannot possibly make educated choices.
To read a full label for a grocery product can easily take a couple of minutes. First, the ingredients list. A long list of unknown compounds. Some of the ingredients are nutritious and healthy such as lecithin; link here. Others are so risky that they come with strict limits to their dosage; link here. Is there a way to make an informed decision about which product is a better choice? We can assume that the bureaucrats and the industry that put the dosage limits have our best interests in mind, and choose based only on taste. Or we make an educated choice. If you must choose between 10 crackers, which one should you pick? Some of them must be better, but which one? Reading 10 ingredients lists does not seem to be the best decision making path for us.

In addition to the Lindy rule, we propose a complementary rule: food must be good value, simple, and have its own taste.

Good value: price per calorie.

Do you know the actual price of the food you buy? You may think you do, but most probably you don’t. You do know the price per kg for every food you buy. What more is there to know, you may ask? Well…the price of what matters, that is, calories. Because the food prices are given in £/kg, and different foods have different nutritional content, it is time consuming to know how much you pay for the calories. To get the real price you should divide the price per 100g with the calories per 100g to find out the price per calories. Can you do it real time while you’re shopping? No, you don’t. That’s why we do this work for you. We extract the price per calorie so that you know what foods are actually expensive and what foods are not. By looking at the price in £/kcal we can see that some products, that are perceived as expensive, such as chocolate, walnuts, olive oil, butter, are actually good value because of their high calorie content. Butter, for example is cheap even compared to some vegetable fat based spreads once you look at the price in £/kcal. We give the price per kcal in two ways: p/kcal ( a pence, p is a hundredth of a £) and Monthly Grocery Equivalent (MGE). We understand that the price in p/kcal may not resonate with your day to day grocery expenditures, therefore we translated it in Monthly Grocery Equivalent. Here’s how that works. We need about 2000 kcalories in a day, that is, 60000 kcalories in a month. If we multiply the price per kcal of a product by 60000, we get an Monthly Grocery Equivalent in £/month. That would be your grocery bill if you bought all your food at that price per kcal. For example, if a product has a price of 0.1p/kcal, the corresponding MGE is 60£. A 60£/month grocery bill is not high, therefore we conclude that our product has a reasonable price. If you are still finding it confusing, just compare the prices per kcal between the products. You will quickly understand what products are good value, and what products are not.

Simple: number of ingredients.

Instead of looking at each and every ingredient one by one, we reckon that the more ingredients there are in a recipe, the more unnecessarily complex the product is. Haagen Dasz recognized everyone’s desire to eat simple food so they came with a five ingredients range; link here. We count the number of ingredients in the ingredients list (again, something that is practically impossible for you to do as you shop). The higher the number of ingredients, the more careful you should be about the product.

Own taste: contains or does not contain flavourings.

We have evolved to recognize the quality of our food with our taste buds and nose. If something tastes flat, for example, we eat less of it. The flavour is the main signal that we get about how nutritious and fresh the food is. Today, the flavour can be added by adding… flavouring. As obvious that statement may sound, the implications are significant. How are we supposed to know whether the great taste we feel is because the quality of the food? Can it be instead due to the added flavouring? Think of flavouring as “cosmetic surgery for food”. Remember the story with the guy that married a beautiful lady and had ugly kids? That’s because his wife had extensive cosmetic surgery. You don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want to eat tasty food and turn up unhealthy. We read the whole ingredients list, look for flavourings, and tell you if there is flavouring in the product or not.

On the right you can see a number of examples. 

Disclaimer. These three numbers are mainly for comparison. You should not reject a product simply because it is costly, complex and flavoured. You should just be aware that it may be in the “fun zone” more than the food zone. A classic example are sweets, puddings and the like.

Are you ready to know more about the food you buy? Are you currently shopping online at Tesco in UK? Do you have an online Tesco account? If yes, get the Chrome extension and get going! You can find it here at Essential Food Label