How to read a food label

Tara Diversi
Smart shopping ... it pays to compare the labels of processed foods.
Smart shopping ... it pays to compare the labels of processed foods. 

Marketing slogans, health claims and nutrition labels are a permanent fixture on any food package, but sometimes more information leads to more confusion, and potentially a false sense of the healthiness of a product.

As a general rule, it's best to ignore the marketing and health promises on the front of the pack and head straight to the ingredient list and nutrition information panel on the side or back.

Food processing allows foods to last for longer, taste better and have better textures, but it can come at a cost to health. Obviously making food from scratch as often as possible is the key, but if you are eating packaged food you can make better choices.

It is easy to follow blanket rules about aiming for high numbers of healthy things such as dietary fibre and good fats, and sticking to low numbers for less healthy ingredients such as saturated fat, sugar and salt. However, I'm a big believer in there being no super foods, because a food is only as good as the company it keeps – you should be aiming for a super diet.

Percentage daily intake

Just like the marketing claims, unless you're an average male (of approximately 75 kilograms) the percentage daily intake (or %DI) thumbnails on the front of packaging are not very useful.

This "reference" man needs 8700 kilojoules per day. If you're a lighter female, or trying to lose weight, your requirements could be as low as 6000kJ, and therefore the percentage could mislead you.

Label for wholegrain barley wraps. Tara Diversi says: Two great things this label shows us. Where most wraps have around ...
Label for wholegrain barley wraps. Tara Diversi says: Two great things this label shows us. Where most wraps have around 900 - 1000KJ per wrap, these ones contain half that. This is great for those watching their weight. As an added bonus, look at the protein (at over 5g) and the Fibre (over 10g), these attributes make this a good product to include in your diet. 

Ingredients

I always like to look at the ingredients before I start to analyse the numbers. I love food that encompasses the natural flavours in whole ingredients, so I look to see if the product contains lots of extra artificial ingredients other products don't have.

I get the most natural if I can. If you are looking for a product for a main meal, make sure there are plenty of vegetables in the ingredients list.

Once you've looked at the ingredients, the next step is to check the serving sizes and energy followed by individual nutrients.

A label for Chobani Greek yoghurt 0%. Tara Diversi says: Yoghurts vary from the very healthy to pure desserts. When you ...
A label for Chobani Greek yoghurt 0%. Tara Diversi says: Yoghurts vary from the very healthy to pure desserts. When you see this label, you can't help but notice the powerful protein punch (17g/serve) when compared to other products. It contains about 1/4 of the sugar of other brands, and no fat. Add some berries and this makes a great afternoon snack. 

Serving sizes

Before you start analysing a label, you need to have an idea of how much of the food you are going to eat. I have seen what to me seems like an individual serve stating it contains five serves. There's no point in analysing 100g of a food when you will be eating 200g or 50g. In saying that, if you're comparing two labels of similar products, use the per 100g or per 100ml column.

Energy

If you're trying to keep your weight in check, the energy is the most important thing you should be looking at. It's easy to eat a health bar with up to 1200kJ as a snack, when a chocolate bar of the same size is only 1000kJ.

A meal should contain between 1500kJ and 2500kJ and snacks between 400kJ and 1000kJ, depending on your weight, weight goals, gender and activity level.

When you're adding sauces or pastes to a meal, remember to look at the additional kilojoules, and decide whether the dish could be flavoured without that extra energy.

Fat

The type of fat is more important than the amount of fat. Some nutritious and delicious foods are high in fat, but good fats. For example, nuts and avocado are nutrient rich, but also high in fat. The good fats include omega three fats, which help reduce inflammation and bad cholesterol levels in the blood. Monounsaturated fats are also heart healthy and good for your skin.

The fats to be avoided are trans fats, and saturated fat should be kept low. If you are going to include such foods as butter and cheese, keep them to small amounts. I find with the full-flavoured product you often eat less than if you get a light product, of which you may eat twice as much.

Protein

Protein helps with recovery and repair. Having protein in meals and snacks also keeps you feeling fuller for longer and reduces blood sugar levels compared with eating carbohydrate alone. You want protein to be moderate, with at minimum 15g in snacks and 20g in meals. You may mix and match foods to get this amount - for example, adding yoghurt to cereal.

Sodium

Sodium is the one nutrient that most people should aim to keep as low as possible.

As well as adding flavour, sodium helps preserve foods and improve texture. Overall we get too much of it in our diet.

With sodium content, similar types of food may have massive differences. For example, some brands of rice and corn cakes have 3mg of sodium per 100g serving, while others have almost 300mg (0.3 grams).

Sauces and spreads were found to be some of the worst offenders in an Australian study, but many brands of bread and cereal were also identified as having unhealthy levels of sodium, with half a gram of salt per 100 grams considered too high.

Sugar

In most packaged foods, you should aim to keep the sugar at less than 10 per cent, so less than 10g per 100g. However, if it is a fruit-based food you may be able to give yourself a bit of leeway. Your response to sweetness is something that changes with time, and if you wean yourself slowly to no-sugar options without artificial sweeteners you will find that you soon find the sweeter options too sweet.

Fibre

If you're eating cereal foods or snacks, your fibre content should be a major feature of the product. Fibre helps with good bowel health, immunity, management of chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes and with losing weight. Look for more than 3g per 100g in grain products and remember you're aiming for 30g a day.

Overall, remember what you're eating the food for, and how much you will have. Try to keep to whole natural foods at least 80 per cent of the time. When you can't eat wholefoods, make an educated choice by comparing nutrition labels to avoid being suckered in by marketing claims.

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