Food Labels, Why are they so confusing? And how do you read them?
Almost every packaged food we pick up in the supermarket will have a food label – but who knows how to read and interpret the information on the food label? I am the first to put my hand up and say that food labels can be confusing, but armed with some handy information, food labels can become useful tools in helping choose the right foods for you and your family.
Words KATE BULLEN
Here in Australia, food that is packaged and manufactured must have a food label. There are a few exceptions to this rule including fresh food such as fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, very small packages or single herbs and spices. A food label will usually including the following:
Nutrition information panel
Product and brand name of the food
Use by date or best before date
Let’s start by looking at the ingredient list. I will often refer to the ingredient list first when I look at a food label as I like to know what I am buying and eating. Ingredients are listed in order of descending weight, so the first ingredient listed is the main ingredient in the food and the last ingredient is the smallest. If you see that sugar, fat or salt are one of the first three ingredients, then perhaps that food isn’t the healthiest choice. It’s also important to note that sugar, fat and salt may be listed as many different names.
Other names for Sugar, Fat & Salt
Below is a copy of a nutrition information panel from a yoghurt that was in my fridge.
Nutrition Information Panel
Servings per package: 4
Serving size: 250g
Here are my five steps to successfully reading a nutrition information panel:
Always look at the ‘per 100g’ column as this is always on foods and allows you to compare between products. The other column ‘per serve’ is determined by the food manufacturer and may be much smaller than the amount of food that you eat. Breakfast cereals are a good example – the serve size of breakfast cereals will be different from Weetbix to Cheerios to muesli, for example. But if you look at the per 100g column you will be able to compare and decide which is the best choice for you.
Energy per 100g – after the ingredient list, this is the second thing that I look at on a food label as it gives me a quick idea of whether a food is going to be a good choice. Great when you don’t have much time and a child or three in tow!
Total fat and saturated fat – As a quick scan, the best choice is to look for products with less than 3g total fat/100g and less than 1.5g saturated fat/100g. Next best is between 3-20g total fat/100g and 1.5-5g saturated fat/100g – which is where my yoghurt from the above nutrition information panel fits, as this is a full fat yoghurt.
Sugar – look for foods with less than 5g sugar/100g. Keep in mind that sugar includes naturally occurring sugar, such as lactose in dairy products, as well as added sugar as in biscuits. So if you are choosing muesli, you might see it is high in sugar and wonder why. This is where it can be useful to look at the ingredient list – where is the sugar coming from? Is it coming from dried fruit (where you also get the benefit of fibre) or is it from honey that is used in toasting the muesli? Again, this is shown in the above nutrition information panel, as the extra carbohydrate and sugars is from lactose. Next best option is to look for sugars between 5.0-12.5g sugar/100g.
Sodium/salt – look for foods with less than 300mg salt/100g.
There are always exceptions. For example choosing an olive oil means that you will not be able to find one with less than 3g total fat/100g – so here is where common sense needs to kick in.
I would encourage you to be a savvy label reader. Food manufacturers want us to buy their products. Here are a few common claims that you may see on food packaging – and what they really mean:
‘Lite’ or ‘light’ does not necessary mean it is low in fat. It may also be referring to the colour or taste of the food.
‘Baked not fried’ sounds like it must be healthier doesn’t it?! Always check the nutrition information panel as it can have just as many kilojoules and fat as a fried food.
’93 per cent fat free’ still contains 7 per cent fat (or 7g fat/100g) which doesn’t make it the healthiest choice.
‘Reduced fat’ means the product should have at least 25 per cent less fat than the original product. But the food may still have more fat than another similar food.
Kate runs www.dietitianonline.com.au and is mum to three young children. Kate has translated her love of all things online to providing expert nutrition coaching online – it works well for anyone who is busy! Kate’s passion lies in making healthy eating simple and enjoyable.