Food labels are very useful for helping us make healthy choices when grocery shopping. But if you have you ever been frustrated when trying to interpret a food label or compare products, you’re not alone. Maybe the fine print was so tiny you needed a magnifier to decipher it, or the nutrition information panel was on the confusing side. And how do you know if those health claims on the package are actually telling the truth?
Research shows Australian shoppers regularly look at food labels for a number of different reasons. It may be to avoid foods or additives that cause allergies or intolerances, or to steer clear of high-fat foods or genetically modified foods. Whatever the reason may be, it is important to know what to look for and how to interpret this information.
Here are NAQ Nutrition’s simplified top tips on reading food labels.
Look for the ingredients list. You might find it on the top, bottom, or side of the pack and all products will display it differently. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity from the highest to the lowest. If a product contains ingredients in its name, it must contain these ingredients in the ingredients list. For example, if a product is called ‘flaked honey corn cereal,’ it will have to list the percentage of corn and honey that is in the product in the ingredients list as well.
In the list, look for sources of fat, sugar and salt. If these are listed towards the start of the ingredients list, it is highly likely that the product is high in these and is therefore, not a healthy choice. But spotting fats, sugars and salts can be easier said than done as there can be many names products high in these these ingredients.
Look out for ingredients high in:
- Fat - butter, butterfat, margarine, animal fat, shortening, coconut oil, copha, cream, lard, ghee, dripping, palm oil, mayonnaise, sour cream, vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil, coconut oil and cream, full cream milk solids.
- Sugar - sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, lactose, molasses, honey, rice malt syrup, malt extract, raw sugar, brown sugar, modified carbohydrate, coconut sugar.
- Salt - sodium, rock salt, onion salt, celery or garlic salt, vegetable salt, MSG, yeast extracts, booster, stock, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate.
- ‘Natural’ claims are often seen on packaging but there are no enforceable food standards regulating the use of the term. This means that products claiming to be ‘natural’ can still have artificial ingredients. Look for foods that are closest to their natural, unprocessed state and that don't actually need an ingredients label to begin with. These real, natural foods include fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain like rice and oats and lean meats, fish and poultry. Food author Michael Pollan points out that ‘any food product that feels compelled to tell you it's natural in all likelihood is not.
- Superfood is a marketing term rather than a scientific one that often attracts a higher price as well. It can carry a lot of weight for consumers who think that a ‘superfood’ is a rich source of many nutrients. No one food can provide all our nutrition needs. Most fruits and vegetables are high in nutrients and could all be considered superfoods in one way or anoth
- Wholegrain foods are an important part of a healthy diet. However, the term is increasingly being used to promote products that also contain other unhealthy ingredients like chips and sugary cereals. True wholegrain sources are foods like oats, rice, barely, whole wheat and quinoa.
- Baked Not Fried sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat so it’s important to check the nutrition information panel. Often found on savoury biscuits, frozen chips and crumbed foods.
- No Added Sugar means that the product has not had sugars added to it but it may still be high in naturally occurring sugars from fruit or milk. Often seen on fruit juice and yoghurt.
- Low Fat: this food must have 3g of fat or less per 100g, but look at the label because it may be high in sugar instead. Often found in dairy products and sweet and savoury biscuits.
- Lite or Light: always check the nutrition information label on these foods because lite may mean the food is light in colour or taste, or something else and not low in salt, fat or sugar.
- Low Joule or Diet: this food is either low in sugar and/or fat and may be artificially sweetened. Often found on yoghurt, jelly or desserts.
- Low Salt or Low Sodium: this food must have less than 120mg sodium per 100g and is a good choice.
- Source of Fibre: a product that claims to be ‘a source of fibre’ must have at least 2g of fibre per serve. A better choice would be 3g or more of fibre per serve with 7g being an ‘excellent source’ choice. Look for fibre on the nutrition panel especially for cereals, bread, muesli bars and crackers.
Country of Origin: Learn more about ‘Product of Australia’ and ‘Made in Australia’ from Choice.
Nutrition information panel
The nutrition information panel is the numbers end of the reading food labels. At a minimum, there will be number values for:
- energy or kilojoules/calories
- total fat and saturated fat
- carbohydrate and sugars
- sodium (salt)
- Some products may also list fibre content and specific vitamin and nutrients like vitamin C or iron.
A product’s nutrition information panel will list information per serve and per 100g of the item. It’s important to note that when comparing 2 products it’s best to use the per 100g column as the serving sizes may be different.
The image in this link from the National Health and Medical Research Council shows a nutrition information panel and the cut off to look for each nutrient of interest.
You might also find it useful to download and print this business card size label reading guide to take to the grocery store.