Are you confused by what to look for in a food product? It makes claims that sound healthy, so is it? And you know where to find the nutrition panel but perhaps don’t know what to make of the figures? Without some training in label reading, knowing what to look for can be tough- particularly with so many products touting their “health benefits”!
As an example, these two kinds of Pop Tarts are a good source of eight vitamins and minerals, five B vitamins and they have no cholesterol and 0g trans fats. Yet we know better than to believe that they are a healthy option. Some products, however, are not as obvious. Because marketing can be so clever with their portrayal of a product, we need to know what we are looking for. This blog will therefore be label reading 101.
Per serve vs. per 100 g
When comparing the energy/ nutrient content between similar products, use the per 100g column. When working out how much of a certain nutrient or energy you will consume in one sitting, use the per serve column – make sure your portion size is in line with the products serving size or adjust values accordingly!Often the serving sizes will be much smaller than what people actually eat.
In the example below, 30g is considered to be one serve and what the values are representing. However, you may serve out 60g in which case you would need to double these values.
The energy figure will tell you in kilojoules (kJ) and sometimes calories (kcal or cal), how much energy that food is going to provide you with. This section is important for weight loss/ weight maintenance.
What is an appropriate energy content will depend on the type of product and your energy requirements. One serve of a ‘discretionary food’ is considered to be 600kJ.
√ As a guide, try to choose products with less than 10g of total fat per 100g.
√ Aim for below 2g of fat per 100g for milk, yoghurt and ice-cream.
√ Look for cheese with less than 15g of fat per 100g.
Choosing the lowest possible saturated fat content will always be the best option. However, try to make the limit 3g of saturated per 100g.
Other names for fat/ high fat ingredients include:
- Animal/ beef fat
- Coconut, coconut oil/ milk/ cream
- Milk solids
- Palm oil
- Sour cream
- Vegetable shortening
It is not necessary to completely avoid sugar. However, it is a good idea to find products with only minimal amounts of added sugars. When looking at the nutrient information panel, look at the ‘sugars’ column.
What to look for? Firstly, aim for products with below 15g of ‘sugars’ per 100g. If a product has in excess of this amount, check the ingredients list to see if sugar is high on the list. If it is, then this means the sugar is a predominant ingredient in that product.
The following list presents the different names for added sugar:
- Golden/ maple syrup
- Brown sugar
- Caster sugar
- Raw sugar
In the example below, there are 3 different kinds of sugar.
Look for products with >3g of fibre per serve. For many items, it will be difficult to meet this criterion so this guideline applied mostly to cereal foods like breads and cereals. Not every food product label will include the fibre content.
The lower the better in the case of sodium. Compare the per 100g column between similar products and select the options with the lowest sodium content. Finding products with below 120mg per 100g is ideal but these can sometimes be hard to come by. Anything below 400mg per 100g is the next best option.
It can also help to look for items that state they are ‘low salt’ or ‘salt reduced’ – they may not be below 120mg/ 100g but they will be lower in sodium than their full salt counterpart.
Other names salt or ingredients high in salt:
- Baking powder
- Sodium ascorbate
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Sodium nitrate/ nitrite
- Celery/ garlic/ onion/ vegetable salt
- Meat/ yeast extract
- Monosodium glutamate
- Rock salt, sea salt
- Himalayan salt
- Stock cubes
Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. This means that those closer to the beginning of the list are major ingredients in the product. As a guide, avoid products with saturated fat, added sugar or sodium within the first three ingredients of the list. This may not be relevant for products with very few ingredients.
Now you should be equip with a lot more knowledge about how to choose the healthiest options possible! Have a practice at home using the items you already have.
Have a read of my blog ‘Decoding Food Label Claims’ to learn more about the tricky nutrient claims products make and how to read between the lines.
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have questions about label reading or other nutrition related issues, make an appointment. We‘ll provide you with a simple and effective routine targeted to your concerns. Contact us today.
For more information
The website below can help to give you a rough estimate of your energy requirements. This can be useful as a guide and helps to put the energy content of some products in to perspective. A dietitian will be able to provide you with requirements that are more tailored to your individual circumstance.