Understanding Food Labels

lady looking at food

Nutrition Expert Melanie McGrice explains how to decipher those tricky and often confusing information panels, to help you make better nutritional choices.

Food brands are constantly being marketed towards us on TV, in magazines and even while we’re driving past billboards! So here’s how you can identify which products offer the best nutritional value for you.

 

 Nutrition claims

Manufacturers often make claims about their food products, which can be misleading. For this reason, when you see a claim it is always best to check the Nutrition Information Panel.

 Some common misleading health claims include: 

  • ‘Cholesterol free’ – food may still be high in fat.

  • ‘Light’ or ‘lite’ – this doesn’t necessarily mean food is low in fat or kilojoules or salt, it can refer to light flavour, texture, colour ‘reduced fat’ (i.e., food may not be low in fat).

  • ‘Low GI’ – food may still be high in fat.

  • ‘% reduced fat’ – food may not be low in fat. 

Ingredient list

The ingredient list on a food label is similar to a recipe; it lists all of the ingredients that are in that product in order of quantity. Therefore, the ingredients at the top of the list are present in the greatest amount, while the last ingredient is contained in the smallest amount.

 Be careful when looking for fat, sugar and sodium in the ingredients list as they can be hidden under different names. For example:

Sugar. This may appear on a label as: honey, sucrose, maltose, lactose, fructose, dextrose, glucose, malt, glucose syrup, corn syrup, monosaccharides, xylitol, polysaccharides, manitol, sorbitol, ‘carbohydrates modified’, molasses, disaccharides.

 Fat. This may appear on a label as: Saturated – beef fat, butter fat, shortening, coconut, coconut oil, copha, cream, dripping, lard, mayonnaise, sour cream, palm oil. Monounsaturated – Canola, olive oils, peanut oil, avocado, nuts.

Polyunsaturated – Seeds, sesame, sunflower, safflower, corn, soya bean, grape seed oils, margarines and fish oils.

 Sodium. This may appear on a label as: salt, monosodium glutamate, meat extract, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein, meat protein, stock, vegetable salt, baking soda, baking powder.


Nutrition Information Panel

This must be present if the manufacturer makes a nutrition claim about the food. It tells you the amount of various nutrients and composition of the food in one serve, and in 100g of the product. It is best to look at the numbers in the 100g column, as these can easily be converted to a percentage, and can be used to compare products to determine the best choice. For example, 10g of fat in the 100g column is the same as 10% fat.

Servings per package: 2

Serving size: 30g

Per 30g Serve

Per 100g

Energy

467kJ (112 cal)

1,555kJ (372cal)

Protein

2.60g

8.6g

Fat

0.3g

1.1g

Carbohydrate Total

24.1g

80.5g

Sugars

4.1g

13.7g

Fibre

2.8

9.4g

Sodium

2mg

8mg

Postassium

127mg

424mg

 

 

 


Servings per package

Look at the servings. If a 600ml drink contains 3 servings, this may mean that you need to consume it over more than one meal.

 Fat

Look for foods with less than 10g or 10% fat – these are reduced fat foods. It is best to choose foods with less than 3g or 3% fat, these are low fat foods.

 0-3% = low fat

3-5% = moderate fat

5-10% = high fat

>10% = very high fat and should be consumed as a treat food only.

 Carbohydrates 

There are usually two values given for carbohydrate, ‘total’ and ‘sugars’. The total represents both sugars and starches in the food. The ‘sugars’ value represents added sugars and also those naturally present in the food such as fructose or lactose, so a food high in ‘sugars’ isn’t necessarily high in added sugar.

 Fibre

The fibre content should also be taken into consideration. Aim to eat 30g of fibre every day. Look for foods that contain at least 4g of fibre per 100g.

Sodium

Foods with less than 120mg of sodium per 100g are low in salt. Foods with more than 400mg of sodium per 100g are considered high in salt.

 

Disclaimer: This article provides general advice only. Readers should seek independent professional advice from their general practitioner or dietitian in relation to their own individual circumstances or condition before making any decisions based on the information in this article.