Making Sense of Food Labels

It’s a question we get from many of our clients at NND.  What exactly do all the numbers on our food labels mean and what should I be looking for when choosing which foods to put in my trolley?  With an increasing number of food products finding their way onto the supermarket shelves each week, and many of these covered in nutrition ‘claims’, we understand that shopping for a healthy diet isn’t always easy.  But with a few basic guidelines to follow, selecting the right foods for you and your family doesn’t have to be mission impossible.

Fresh is best.  The first tip when shopping is that most of your trolley should be filled with foods that don’t carry a label.  That’s right – fresh fruit and vegetables! While we know they are good for us, most of us don’t eat enough – in fact the latest national dietary survey found that only 5% of Australian adults are eating the recommended amount of fruit and veg.   To ensure you get your 2 and 5 (that’s two serves of fruit and 5 serves of veggies each day) make sure these go into the shopping basket first!

Check the Ingredients The ingredient list is often overlooked but it’s an important part of a food label, listing all of the ingredients in the product, in descending order of quantity. It’s a useful way of determining the source of various nutrients and is also handy for anyone with food allergies or intolerances to work out if the product is suitable for them.  And if the ingredient list is full of things that you don’t recognise as food, leave it on the shelf!

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry”

Michael Pollan –Food Rules

 Serving Size The nutrition information panel provides nutrient details both per serve and per 100g. The serving size is specified by the manufacturer but it’s important to remember that this may not be the amount that you eat!  When comparing products, it is best to use the figures in the ‘per 100g’ column so that you are always comparing the same amount. These figures are also equivalent to percentages, e.g. 5g of fat per 100g means that the product contains 5% fat.

 Energy Many people don’t understand what ‘energy’ on a food label means, yet this is one of the most important things to look at, particularly if you are watching your weight.  Energy refers to the number of calories or kilojoules in a food and takes into account the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrate that food contains.  Your energy needs will depend on a number of factors including your age, sex, activity levels and whether you are trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight, but to maintain weight the average adult female needs about 8800 kilojoules each day and the average male needs 10600 kilojoules. Knowing your energy needs can help you to work out how a particular food fits into your daily eating plan.

Fat While fat isn’t necessarily the enemy, for optimal health it’s best to avoid foods high in saturated fat (found in animal foods, palm and coconut oil) and instead, choose foods containing ‘healthier’ monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and fish).  The nutrition panel on a food label will always include both total and saturated fat so aim for foods where the saturated fat is 25% or less of the total fat.  The other type of fat that you want to stay away from is trans fats. Like saturated fats, these fats increase ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, but they also reduce ‘good’ cholesterol so should definitely be avoided. Unfortunately, there is no mandatory labelling for trans fats in Australia at this stage, but some manufacturers choose to include them, so look for products with no trans fats, particularly when buying products like margarine, pastries and biscuits.  Finally, remember that fat contains more energy per gram than protein and carbohydrate so can add up the kilojoules quickly.

To be labelled ‘low fat’ a product must have 3g/100g or less of fat and to be labelled ‘low saturated fat’ it must have 1.5g/100g or less of saturated fat.

Carbohydrate The value for carbohydrate on a food label tells you the total amount of carbs from both starches and sugars.  Despite all the recent attention on low carb diets, carbs are not bad.  In fact these are your main energy source and for most people, should make up at least 50% of your daily energy needs, a lot more if you are active.  The carbohydrate content of a food is particularly useful if you have diabetes, as eating a regular intake from day to day and/or matching this with your medication or insulin is important in managing blood glucose levels.

Sugars Most people think the sugar content on a food label refers to the amount of added sugar in a food, but this isn’t the case.  It actually tells you the total amount of sugar which includes both added sugars and those naturally occurring (e.g. lactose in milk products and fructose in fruit).  So dairy foods like milk and yoghurt, and foods containing fruit or dried fruit may appear to be high in sugar, but this is from the natural sugars these foods contain rather than added sugar.  In general, products with less than 5g of sugar per 100g are considered low in sugar. Remember, though, some healthy products may not fit into this category due to the naturally occurring sugars they contain – the ingredient list can help you in determining the source of sugar in a food product.

Glycemic Index One important thing to realise is that the sugar content of a food does not predict the effect a food has on blood glucose or insulin levels.  In fact, the only way to know this is to know the glycemic index (GI) of a food (a measure of the rate of digestion and absorption of a food) and unfortunately this so far only appears on a small range of food products (although it is increasing all the time). Look out for the official GI symbol ( which tells you that a food has been properly tested and meets certain nutrition criteria. You can also get a copy of The Low GI Diet Shoppers Guide. Choosing lower GI carbs can help with managing blood glucose and insulin levels, keeping you fuller for longer and providing longer lasting energy. However, GI shouldn’t be used in isolation as not all low GI foods are healthy choices!

A GI value of less than 55 is considered ‘low GI’, 55-70 is considered ‘moderate GI’ and over 70 is considered ‘high GI’

Dietary Fibre Adults should consume at least 25-30g of dietary fibre each day yet research shows that Australians are only getting about half of this amount. Fibre is essential for digestive health and may also help to reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes.  So when choosing foods like breads, cereals, crackers, rice and pasta, compare products and go for those with a higher fibre content.

Products containing more than 3g of fibre per serve are considered high fibre.

Protein This is something we’ve all been hearing more about recently, yet most of us eat more protein than we need.  The average female needs about 46g of protein/day and the average male about 64g/day and by reading food labels you will see that this is quite easy to meet.  This means there’s no need for most of us to be adding extra protein from bars and powders.  While adequate protein is important and can help with satiety, high protein – low carb diets, particularly where the protein is coming mainly from animal foods, have been linked with a greater risk of chronic disease (including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer) and mortality.  The best eating plan for optimal health and weight management is one which balances good quality proteins and carbs.

Sodium Eating too much salt, or sodium, can lead to high blood pressure, increase your risk of heart disease and affect bone health by reducing the amount of calcium you retain. Aim for no more than 2300mg per day and even less (1600mg/day) if you have high blood pressure.  While not adding salt to your meals or cooking is a good start, most of the sodium in our diet actually comes from processed foods, so always check the sodium content when shopping and go for products with lower sodium levels.

Products with less than 120mg of sodium per 100g are considered low in sodium.

While we’d all do well to follow Michael Pollan’s advice to avoid shopping in the supermarket where possible, we realise this isn’t always easy.  So hopefully next time you head out to buy your groceries, these guidelines will help determine which deserve a place in your trolley.

Should you quit sugar?

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If you’ve been following the anti-sugar crusaders (and there are more than a few of them around!) you could easily believe that sugar is poison. But is it really, and should you be avoiding it altogether?

The fact is that sugar is just a form of carbohydrate, and like other carbs is broken down to glucose to provide your body with energy. However unlike many other carbohydrate foods, such as wholegrains, legumes, fruit and starchy vegetables, sugar provides energy but no other nutrients, so for most of us, should only play a small part in our overall diet.  This is particularly the case if you are trying to lose weight, where there is little room for ‘empty calories’, and if you are trying to manage blood glucose and insulin levels.

When we think about sugar, most of us think of table sugar, or sucrose, but sugar actually comes in many forms, including the naturally occurring sugars in fruit (fructose) and dairy foods (lactose).

So where does sugar fit in and should you avoid it altogether?

  • It makes sense for most people to minimise their intake of added sugars, particularly as part of foods with little other nutritional value, such as lollies, soft drinks and cordials.
  • Including small amounts of sugar as part of an otherwise healthy food or meal really isn’t a problem, for example adding a teaspoon of brown sugar to your morning porridge. But you could also replace the sugar with some stewed apple & cinnamon, for natural sweetness with the added benefit or more fibre and nutrients.
  • Sugar is often hidden in places we don’t think about and can add up. Fortunately, there are some easy swaps you can make to lower your intake. Examples might be switching a jar of pre-made pasta sauce for canned crushed tomatoes, adding your own fruit to natural yoghurt rather than buying the sweetened varieties, and making your own muesli in place of the commercial varieties.
  • The natural sugars in fruit and dairy foods come along with other important vitamins and minerals, and fibre (in fruit), and also have a lower glycemic index which means they’re more slowly digested and don’t raise blood glucose levels to the same extent as other forms of sugar. There’s no need to avoid these sugars – fruit and dairy foods (e.g. milk and natural yoghurt) can make a valuable contribution to our nutrition.

One thing to remember is that the sugar content on a food label doesn’t refer just to the amount of added sugar in a food, but the total amount of sugar which includes both added sugars and those naturally occurring.  So dairy foods like milk and yoghurt, and foods containing fruit or dried fruit may appear to be high in sugar, but this is from the natural sugars these foods contain rather than added sugar.  This means that the sugar content on a label is not particularly helpful. But if a food is high in sugar and doesn’t contain fruit or dairy, it’s probably best left on the shelf!  Check the ingredient list and avoid foods where added sugars appear high on this list.

It’s also important to know that there are many names for added sugars including dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, raw sugar and sucrose.  And while some may be promoted as ‘heathier’ choices they are all still added sugars with little nutritional value.

The Lowdown on Antioxidants

Antioxidants form part of the body’s natural defence network against the potentially harmful effects of free radicals.

Free radicals are produced through the process of oxidation which occurs during many of the normal chemical reactions that take place in our bodies, as well as being triggered by exposure to cigarette smoke, sunlight and other pollutants.  They cause damage to the cells in our body and may be one factor in the development of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants destroy free radicals, preventing the damage that they can cause.  We therefore need a good balance between antioxidants and free radicals for our body cells to stay healthy.  If we don’t consume enough antioxidants, free radicals become present in excess and may contribute to early ageing and an increased risk of degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease and cataracts.

While many people head for a supplement when they think of antioxidants, you’ll get much more benefit by consuming your antioxidants from a wide variety of foods.  The best sources of antioxidants are plant foods including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and wholegrains, as well as wine and tea.

While there are a wide variety of antioxidants in food, all with different benefits, following are some of the more important antioxidants and their food sources:

  • Beta-carotene is found in carrots, pumpkin, kumera, mangoes, apricots and spinach.
  • Flavonoids are found in tea, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, onion and apples.
  • Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
  • Isoflavonoids are found in soybeans, tofu and legumes (lentils, chickpeas and dried beans).
  • Lignans are found in linseeds, sesame seeds, bran, whole grains and vegetables.
  • Lutein is found in corn, and leafy greens like spinach.
  • Lycopene is found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon.
  • Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, berries, broccoli, spinach, capsicum and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Zinc is found in seafood, lean meat, legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy products.

The key to optimising your antioxidant intake is to eat a wide variety of plant foods including a range of different coloured fruit and vegetables each day.  A good starting point is going for 2 and 5 (that’s 2 fruit and 5 vegies each day, with a variety of colours) – according to the latest Australian national health survey, only one in twenty Australian adults were meeting these recommendations, so there’s plenty of room for improvement!.

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