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.

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