How To Read A Food Label
One of the questions that I am most often asked is “how do I read a food label?”. And so often I hear comments like “I just don’t know what to look for”.
As a Nutritionist I guess I take it for granted that I am able to read a food label. It is something that I have learned to do over time; you learn what to look out for. However I will do my best to explain to you the basics so that you get make the most informed decision you can when it comes to choosing one food over another or one brand over another.
Firstly it is so important not to get too caught up in the specifics of health. I don’t want to create an army of people running around the supermarket looking at EVERY single food label. Although it is important to know what you are putting inside your body, try not to get too carried away with it.
Learning to read a food label will be a learning process. As you compare certain foods you will become more aware of what to look out for. You see, food manufacturers want you to buy their food (obviously) so they will do what they can to market their products to you. Trust me, I’ve seen an apple with a sticker that said “no cholesterol” on it. That apple was no different to the apple next to it without the label because… apples don’t have cholesterol!! And whist the sticker may be true, it’s still a form or marketing. At the moment there is a growing awareness surrounding health and healthy foods. People are starting to become a little more cautious of the foods they are buying for both themselves and their families and what I love is that more and more people are WANTING to know exactly what they are putting into their bodies.
So lets start with Nutritional Claims. Now when I say food manufacturers will do what they can to market their products to you, what I mean is they will do what is within their boundaries. We are lucky enough in Australia to have FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand), which is highly regulated. When it comes to health and nutrition claims on food packaging, FSANZ controls the wording in which these foods can be marketed. In order to claim a certain health standard, the food has to reach certain targets.
For example, a food product that markets itself as a “high source of calcium” versus one that states it is a “good source of calcium” will have very different levels of calcium. The product that states “high” on the label will have more calcium than the one that states “good”. As with a label that states that the food is a “source of calcium”. This product will most likely contain some form of calcium, but not enough to reach the other 2 labeling requirements. This is great news for the consumer, otherwise everyone would be labeling their food products as an “awesome source” or a “fantastic source” or an “amazing source” and we would have no idea how to tell the difference. So you can sleep sound knowing that in Australia, when a food product claims to be “high in fibre”, have “no artificial preservatives” etc, it will.
Now let’s move onto the Ingredients List. I have two rules when it comes to reading the ingredients list on a food label:
- The less ingredients, the better.
I believe in eating wholesome, nourishing foods from the earth. So food labels with only a few different ingredients on the ingredient list, are generally closer to their natural form.
- If you don’t know what the ingredient is, don’t eat the food.
You know all those words on an ingredients list that you cannot pronounce, usually have some number behind it, and you’d have no idea where to buy it if you were to buy that single ingredient? Those are usually some sort of food additive, stabiliser, colour, preservative, taste enhancer etc, etc. Basically just chemicals you don’t want to put into your body.
When it comes to reading the ingredients list, FSANZ ensures that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So usually the ingredient that is most apparent will be listed first. For example you would hope that in a jar of peanut butter (healthy or naughty kind) that peanuts would be the first ingredient listed.
It is important to keep in mind that the word ‘sugar’, ‘fat’, or ‘salt’ isn’t always used in the ingredients list. Sometimes there are different names to look out for, such as:’
Sugar: glucose, lactose, dextrose, (basically anything ending in ‘ose’), malt extract
Fat: oil, lard, tallow, shortening, dripping, copha
This brings us to the major part – the Nutrition Panel.
There are two sides to a nutrition panel. One is listed ‘per serve’ which is determined by the manufacturer. You will see how many serves the food package contains at the top of the nutrition panel. I personally never really use this side much. The important side is the side that is listed ‘per 100g’. This side allows for easy comparison between different products.
What is considered ‘healthy’:
Sugar: no more than 15g per 100g. Look at it this way 4g of sugar = 1 tsp.
Fat: technically food with less than 10g per 100g. However it’s important to differentiate between our healthy (unsaturated) and not-so-healthy (saturated) and bad (trans) fats.
Salt/Sodium: less than 120mg per 100g.
You will also see on the nutrition panel a section for ‘Percentage Daily Intake’. I’m not a fan of using the % Daily Intake to guide how much you need to eat each day as everyone is so unique in his or her energy needs. Your energy needs are determined by a number of things including your genetic makeup, your age, gender, fat mass to muscle mass ratio, the climate that you live in, your occupation, and so many more other lifestyle factors. My advice, don’t worry about this one and concentrate on some of the more important things on the nutritional panel.
Here is a link to a wonderful free pdf developed by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council that you can download.
- ‘No Added Sugar’ or ‘No Added Salt’ simply means neither have been added to the food. However it may still contain high amounts of these so it is important to check the label.
- If sugar, fat or salt are one of the first 3 ingredients on the ingredients list, the product is most likely not the healthiest choice.
- Be careful when buying foods that are ‘low fat’. Often these are loaded with sugar as manufacturers need to make up for the loss of taste with added sugar.
I hope this helps you to better understand food labels. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or email me. Cass xo