Your guide to understanding food labels
If you want to make healthier food choices, understanding the labels on packaged food is important. Here are some ways to increase your nutritional know-how and shop smarter.
Health Agenda magazine
Judging how healthy a packaged food is from its health claims, nutritional label and ingredients can be a puzzling exercise. But it’s an important skill to have up your sleeve if you want to make healthy choices in the supermarket.
Nicole Dynan, an accredited practising dietitian, says food labels can be confusing because of the number of ingredients that need to be listed and monitored for their nutritional value. But becoming label-savvy is well worth your while.
“While packaged foods can be low in nutrition, many are convenient and, if you know what to look for, can be a part of a healthy diet,” she says.
Ingredients and claims
Check the nutrition information panel on packaged foods and you’ll find the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a serve and in 100g (or 100ml) of the food.
The serve doesn’t necessarily include the whole can or packet, though, and the size of a serve can vary from product to product. Servings per package is how many portions the manufacturer states are in a package of its food.
If a nutrition claim is made on the pack, such as “high in calcium”, the label must include the amount of that ingredient shown, says Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.
The nutrition panel must show the percentage of key ingredients, so you can find out if a strawberry yoghurt, for example, contains only 6% strawberries.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if the first 2 or 3 ingredients are sugar or saturated fat, they’re the highest-proportion ingredients and it’s a good idea to find a healthier option.
Some other ingredients that must be listed are nuts, seafood, milk, sesame and soybeans because they may cause an allergic reaction in some people, and cereals such as wheat or rye that contain gluten.
Not so sweet
Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar – they’re all names for sugar, according to the National Medical Research Council.
Dynan suggests sticking to no more than 6 teaspoons (or 24g) of added sugars a day. Added sugars include sugar in packaged foods, honey, syrups, fruit juices, or sugar added by a chef. It doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars in fruit, vegetables and milk.
The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of your energy intake (or, ideally, 5% per cent) should come from added sugars. As a quick rule of thumb, don’t buy anything with more than 15g of sugar per 100g.
Fats: the good, the bad and the ugly
The total fat listed on your pizza, croissant or frozen fish includes all polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats – which means both unhealthy and healthy fats.
Fat should make up less than 30% of your diet, with saturated fats less than 10% of your total energy intake and trans fats less than 1%, says the Heart Foundation.
While polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease, both saturated fats and trans fats increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Australian manufacturers aren’t required to declare trans fats on the label, although some of them do.
Saturated and trans fats are typically found in biscuits, pies, pastries and popcorn, the fat you can see on meat and chicken, deep-fried food, palm oil and coconut oil.
Be careful of ‘low fat’ products, Dynan cautions, as when fat is removed, extra sugar may be added to make up for lost flavour or texture. This is when your sugar detective work will come in handy.
“What that means is that the kilojoules may be the same as a full-fat product,” she says.
Stick to the Heart Foundation’s guidelines by not putting anything with more than 10g saturated fat per 100g in your shopping trolley.
Words to describe fats include animal fat/oil, beef fat, butter, chocolate, milk solids, coconut, coconut oil/milk/cream, copha, cream, ghee, dripping, lard, suet, palm oil, sour cream and vegetable shortening.
Food claim facts
What do healthy food claims actually mean? Here are a few you might see in the supermarket aisles and recommended intake according to Diabetes Australia:
No added sugar
No added sugars (such as sucrose, honey or glucose). But it may still contain natural sugars, such as milk (lactose), fruit (fructose) or other carbohydrates.
Contains at least 3g of fibre per average serving. Foods that contain more than 3g of dietary fibre per 100g are considered high-fibre foods. Adults should aim for at least 25–30g of fibre each day.
Less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
At least 25% less salt than the regular product. It’s important to minimise your salt intake. Healthy food options contain less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
Low fat or 97% fat free
No more than 3g of fat per 100g. But remember, check the sugar content of anything marked fat free or low fat.
Lite or light
May refer to a reduced fat content but it may also be used to describe taste, texture or colour – so check the label to be sure.
Low joule or diet
Usually artificially sweetened and/or low fat.
To save time, track your daily intake of protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, and salt with the Easy Diet Diary app or the MyNetDiary app. With these apps, you can scan the barcodes of your packaged food or select from the food database to help track your nutrition.
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