The very first thing I learnt when I studied to be a nutritionist was how to properly read a food label. You know…the panel that is usually on the side or the back of the packaging.
Food labels can be very confusing and tricky to understand. Often we don’t have the time to spend trying to work out what they mean and how to use them.
However, a few quick tips can make shopping for healthy food a whole lot easier and quicker and can help you make informed choices about what you and your family eats and avoid unnecessary saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and kilojoules.
Labels on most packaged food must meet strict requirements that include information for people with food allergies, food additive listings and food storage instructions. More information about food labelling requirements can be found at Food Labels – What do they mean? Food Standards Australia and New Zealand [PDF, 1MB].
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.
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.
Look out for information about:
- 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.
Most nutrients are measured in grams, also written as g. Some nutrients are measured in milligrams, or mg. Milligrams are very tiny — there are 1,000 milligrams in 1 gram.
Other information on the label is given in percentages. Food contains fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. Food also contains vitamins, such as A and C, and minerals, such as calcium and iron. Nutrition specialists know how much of each one kids and adults should get every day to have a healthy diet. The percent daily value on a food label tells you how this food can help someone meet these daily goals.
On food labels, they base the percentages on a 2,000-calorie adult diet. Food labels aren’t ideal for kids because they’re calculated based on what adults need to eat. A kid’s diet might be more or less than 2,000 calories, based on your age, whether you are a boy or girl, and how active your are. Likewise, kids may need more or less of certain food components and nutrients, such as calcium and iron.
But kids can still get important information from food labels. They can get a general idea about what the food contains, how much is in a serving, and how many calories are in a serving.
Kids also can use labels to compare two foods. Which one has more fiber? Which one has more fat? Which one has more calories per serving?
All ingredients in a food product must be listed on the label in order, from largest to smallest by weight.
You can use this to spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars because these ingredients are listed in the top three. Also look out for other words on the ingredients list that flag ingredients high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars.
Nutrition content claims
Sometimes labels will include nutrition content claims like ‘low fat’, ‘reduced salt’ or ‘high fibre’. These claims can only be used if the food meets certain criteria. For example, with a ‘good source of calcium’ claim, the food must contain more than a set amount of calcium. While nutrition content claims can generally guide you to healthier choices, it is important to check the claim by looking at the Nutrition Information Panel. For example, products carrying ‘low fat’ claims may not be low in total energy (kilojoules) when compared with similar products.