Understanding food labels is essential to healthy eating. Catherine Saxelby explains how the numbers add up!
Think back to the last time you went shopping for yoghurt, cereal, bread, muesli bars or frozen dinners. When you’re standing amid shelves upon shelves of these packaged supermarket foods, the healthy choice can be hard to spot. While you’re deciding, these products capture your attention with all sorts of claims, from the simple ‘low fat’ to the baffling ‘non-GMO’ and the often misleading ‘natural’. Here’s what you need to know to shop well.
Spot the health stars
The new Health Star Rating system does for food what the Energy Rating does for fridges and washing machines: It lets you identify the best product on the spot. You’ll see these stars on the front of food packaging in a scale that reflects that food’s health value. This rating can be anything from half a star to five stars — and the more stars the better, making foods with five stars the healthiest choice. At this stage, the scheme is entirely voluntary, so you’re more likely to see it on the most nutritious choices.
How to read and understand the nutrition information panel
The nutrition information panel on the side or back of a food’s packaging can tell you more about what’s in that food than anything you read on the front.
At first glance, these columns of numbers can seem hard to decipher, but making sense of them is easier than you think:
Run your eye down the Per 100g column. You need to think of 100g as 100 per cent, so if you spy 80g of fat in the Per 100g column, that food is 80 per cent fat, which means it’s a high-fat food (such as butter or mayo).
Where to look first
Read the Per 100g column of different brands to compare them. Doing this gives you a more accurate comparison than the Per Serve column alone can, because serving sizes can vary among brands. Consider which product is lower in sodium, sugar and saturated fat per 100g, and whether it’s higher in fibre, too.
Scan the Per Serve column to check the amount of fat or number of kilojoules in one serve. And when you get home, check that the recommended serving size matches what you actually serve as a portion.
The secrets hiding in the ingredients list
This list is an instant guide to a packaged food’s contents, as it’s a hierarchy of ingredients in descending order of quantity.
If beans top the list on a can of baked beans, for instance, it’s because they’re the main ingredient. The most minimal ingredients, such as salt, spices or added vitamins, will appear at the bottom of that list.
If an ingredient is part of a food’s brand name or pictured on the front of its packaging, you’ll find the food’s percentage of that ingredient in the list. The list on the apple cookie below, for example, reads Dried Apples (5.7%).
What it tells you
Check the first three ingredients. These make up the bulk of the food. As you can see, the ‘healthy’ cookie below is mostly flour, butter and sugar.
Note the ingredients list’s length. Few ingredients mean the food is less processed, and therefore a healthier choice.
Sugar in disguise
Sugar can appear as:
Sucrose (cane sugar)
Brown, raw, muscovado or demerara sugar
Fructose (fruit sugar)Glucose
Dextrose (another name for glucose)
Golden, maple, agave, malt, rice or corn syrup
Fat in disguise
Fat comes in several forms:
Palm oil or palm olein
Vegetable shortening, such as Copha
Baker’s shortening in pies, pastries and baked goods
Coconut cream or coconut oil
Salt in disguise
Salt’s many names include:
Pink, Murray River or Himalayan sea salt
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
The big five
Use the nutrition panel’s information to make better choices.
Dietary fibre is essential to maintaining your digestive health and staying regular. The law requires brands boasting a ‘high fibre’ claim to have at least 10g of fibre per 100g, so look for that amount to make the best choice. Shop for breads, cereals and snack bars that have wholegrains as one of their first three ingredients. Aim for 25 to 30g of fibre per day.
A subcategory of carbohydrate, sugars include natural sugars from fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). The ingredients list tells you whether a product has added sugar, and if sugar is one of the first three ingredients on the list, that food is probably an unhealthy choice. Limit sugars to 50g added sugar (about 11 teaspoons) per day.
The majority of our dietary salt, or sodium, hides in processed foods such as crackers, bread, soups, stocks and Asian sauces. Try to buy reduced-salt or no-added-salt varieties. The deli is also a high-salt danger zone: Be cautious of the sodium content of sausages, cheeses, bacon and ham. Limit sodium to under 2300mg per day.
4. Total fat
As the most energy-dense nutrient, fat delivers the highest number of kilojoules per gram, which is why you need to eat it sparingly. Getting some healthy fat into your diet is vital, as fat is satiating and helps transport vitamins around the body. A product labelled ‘low fat’ must have fewer than 3g of fat per 100g. Aim for 70 to 100g per day.
5. Saturated fat and trans fat
Studies link excessive consumption of saturated fat with increased risks of heart disease and some cancers. Trans fats are even more harmful to our health, but we’re lucky, as Australian foods are low in these ‘bad’ fats. Packaged biscuits, cakes and pastries are high in saturated fat. Limit your combined fat intake to less than 30g per day.