Food labels can be very confusing and tricky to understand for many consumers. Often we don’t have the time to spend in the supermarket trying to work out what they mean and how we can use them. However, a few quick tips can make shopping for healthy food a whole lot easier and quicker. Knowing what nutritional information to look for can help make the best choice and avoid unnecessary saturated fats, added salts/sugars/kilojoules. A Variety of useful websites online such as Eat for Health, Food Standards Australia and The National Centre for Biotechnology Information (refer to references section), have great information on how to read the nutrition information panel, ingredients list, nutrition content/health claims and percentage daily intake.
However, as a practitioner it is part of our job to teach our clients how to make the best informed decisions on their food products that best fit with their lifestyle and diet plan. So I decided to create this blog to help you gain a better understanding on food labels, and how to make the best choices when it comes to food products.
In Australia, the law requires all manufactured foods to carry labels containing safety and nutrition information. This information helps you to make decisions about the food you buy and eat so you can follow a healthy diet.
What information is on the food label?
The label will tell you:
- the name of the product
- the brand name
- what ingredients it contains (listed in order from largest to smallest by weight)
- nutritional information
- use by date
- details of the manufacturer
- how much it weighs
- information for people with food allergies
- a list of food additives
- storage instructions
- the country where the food was produced.
Understanding nutrition claims
Some labels tell you what percentage of the recommended daily intake is provided by one serve of the product. This helps you to work out how the food fits into a balanced diet. Read more about recommended daily intakes for adults and here.recommended daily intakes for children
The label may make a number of nutrition claims such as ‘gluten free’, ‘low GI’, ‘low fat’, ‘reduced salt’ or ‘high fibre’. These mean the product meets strict criteria set by the government. More about those below.
But just because a product can make a nutrition claim doesn’t mean it is healthy. For example, a product that is ‘low fat’ may have more kilojoules than another similar product. Check the Nutrition Information Panel to see how the product compares.
Various claims on Food Products
Food products may have various claims on the package providing information on the food products and source. Some claims you may see in the supermarket include Free-range, organic, gluten-free, Whole-grain, good source of calcium, low energy, lactose free, good source of protein.
Some food label claims are more specific to a particular nutrient such as:
Sugar: No Added Sugar, Real fruit/fruit juice, unsweetened, % Sugar free
Sodium/Salt: Low in Salt, No added salt, unsalted
Fat: Low fat, Fat-free, Reduced Fat, % Fat-Free, Saturated Fat-free, contains less cholesterol, trans-fatty acid free
light or lite: One of the most confusing food packaging labels. This can refer to any number of characteristics of a product including colour, textures, salt, fat, or sugar content. The label must specify in what way the product is considered ‘light/lite’. If the information claims a nutrient, energy or salt of the product has to be at least 25% less than the regular version. However, if the product is normally very high, the ‘light/lite’ version can still be high energy, salt or fat.
low cholesterol: The food contains no more cholesterol then 10mg per 100ml for liquid food and 20mg per 100g for solid food.
Cholesterol is found in meat, chicken, dairy products and eggs and is linked to a higher incidence of heart disease. Therefore, products containing little or no animal fats can claim to be low cholesterol or cholesterol free. This, however, does not mean the product is necessary low in other fats such as vegetable oils. While most plant based fats are healthier than saturated or trans fats they can still contribute to weight gain. In the same way that fat free is used to disguise high sugar products, low cholesterol or cholesterol free are often used on high vegetable fat products. Potato chips, for example, often use the label, even though many contain in excess of 30% fat.
High fibre: for a good source of dietary fibre a serving of the food must contain at least 4g of dietary fibre. An excellent source of dietary fibre would include at least 7g of dietary fibre per serve.
Reduced salt: The food must contain at least 25% less salt than the regular version.
Low sugar: The food contains no more sugars then 2.5grams per 100ml for liquid food and 5g per 100g for solid food.
How to read the Nutrition Information Panel
The Nutrition Information Panel tells you the size of a standard serving of the product and which nutrients are contained in that serving. You can use the label to compare the product with what’s in similar packaged foods.
Energy: A kilojoule is a measure of energy. To lose weight, you need to eat and drink fewer kilojoules than you use. You should limit your intake of foods that have more than 600kJ per serve.
- Fat: Fat is higher in kilojoules than other nutrients, so you should limit the total amount you eat.
- Saturated fat: There are different types of fats. Saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and high blood cholesterol, so it is especially important to choose foods low in saturated fat.
- Carbohydrate: Carbohydrates are found in all fruit and vegetables, all breads and grain products, and sugar and sugary foods. You need carbohydrates for energy.
- Sugar: Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. It is better to choose healthier carbohydrates and to limit foods that are high in added sugars.
- Fibre: High fibre foods such as wholegrain bread and cereals improve digestion and help you to feel full.
- Sodium: This tells you how much salt the product contains. Eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure and can lead to heart disease, strokes and kidney disease.
Ingredients must be listed in descending order (by ingoing weight). This means that when the food was manufactured, the first ingredient listed contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient listed contributed the least. For example, if sugar is listed near the start of the list the product contains a greater proportion of this ingredient.
If the product contains added water, it must be listed in the ingredient list according to its ingoing weight, with an allowance made for any water lost during processing, e.g. water lost as steam. The only exceptions are when the added water:
makes up less than 5% of the finished product,
is part of a broth, brine or syrup that is listed in the ingredient list, or
is used to reconstitute dehydrated ingredients.
Sometimes compound ingredients are used in a food. A compound ingredient is an ingredient made up of two or more ingredients e.g. canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, where the spaghetti is made up of flour, egg and water. All the ingredients which make up a compound ingredient must be declared in the ingredient list, except when the compound ingredient is used in amounts of less than 5% of the final food. An example of a compound ingredient that could be less than 5% of the final food is the tomato sauce (consisting of tomatoes, capsicum, onions, water and herbs) on a frozen pizza.
However, if an ingredient that makes up a compound ingredient is a known allergen it must be declared regardless of how much is used.
Most packaged foods have to carry labels which show the percentage of the key or characterizing ingredients or components in the food. This allows you to compare similar products.
The characterizing ingredient for strawberry yoghurt would be strawberries and the label would say, for example, 9% strawberries. An example of a component could be the cocoa solids in chocolate. Some foods, such as white bread or cheese, may have no characterizing ingredients or components.
For more information regarding food labelling laws, understanding claims, recommended dietary serves and serving sizes, please click the links below. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via the contact page