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How to decipher food labels and choose healthier options

Sugar. Fat. Sodium. Kilojoules. With the amount of information on food labels, it can seem impossible to compare products. SH dietitian Liz simplifies the process of choosing healthy options. 

 

Food labels now contain more information than ever, which should make it easier to compare products and make better choices. After all, knowledge is power. However, for many of us, the wealth of words and terms on food packaging can be both confusing and overwhelming. How do you know whether there’s too much sugar or fat or what’s a healthy serving or portion size? For people with food intolerances or allergies and conditions such as coeliac disease, the stakes of misinterpreting a label are even higher as certain foods may trigger symptoms. Here are some simple tips to decipher food labels so you can be confident that you and your family are consuming the healthiest options. 

  1. Know your nutrition panel 

The nutrition information panel (NIP) may be your most reliable guide to healthy food options, especially when it comes to comparing different food types. Regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), this panel specifies the amount of both desirable nutrients such as fibre and protein and ones to limit, such as saturated fat and sugar. Where this panel gets tricky is that it specifies amounts ‘per serve’ and ‘per 100g’. It’s important to pay attention to the per 100g, which makes it possible to compare different food product types and also aligns with official dietary recommendations. In terms of specified serving size on this label (e.g. 33g or two biscuits), be careful not to assume that this is a healthy portion. If you’re unsure of what constitutes an appropriate portion of a food or food type, consult an accredited practising dietitian.  

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Fat 

Total fat content is broken into saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. The total should be less than 10g per 100g. Saturated fats should be 2-3g or less per 100g. Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats may be consumed plentifully. For trans fats, avoid them or choose options with less than 1g per 100g.  

Sugar  

Limit to 15g per 100g or less, assuming there are no added fruits in the product. 

Salt 

The recommendation is to consume less than 2,000mg per day. In packaging terms, look for 20mg or less per 100g.  

Fibre 

Fibre is good for bowel health and has other health benefits. More is better. Aim for 3-5g or more per 100g.  

  1. Beware beguiling claims 

Food marketing is fiercely competitive, so it’s not surprising that manufacturers are tapping into our desires and fears by using appealing claims such as ‘lite’ and ‘no added sugar’. While these claims tend to contain some truth, it is often what they don’t say that’s most telling. For instance, ‘no added sugar’ may truthfully convey that no sugar has been added, yet the food product may still be very high in sugar due to the way it’s been processed (e.g. dried fruit). Similarly, the terms ‘lite’ and ‘light’ may appear to suggest that products are low in fat or kilojoules, but it may in refer to a ‘lighter’ colour, taste or texture. On the flip side, certain symbols on food packaging can in fact be helpful, but it pays to know which ones are regulated by health bodies.  

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

‘Lite’ or ‘light’ 

This may refer to colour, taste or texture rather than lower fat or kilojoule content. Check the nutrition information panel to assess these factors.  

‘No added sugar’ 

Products without sugar added may already be high in sugar. It’s important to compare sugar content per 100g to discern which is really better.  

‘Cholesterol-free’ 

This is a good thing, but sometimes this claim is made for products that naturally contain no cholesterol. In such cases, it may not mean it’s healthier than the same product from a brand that doesn’t make this claim.  

‘Natural’ or ‘organic’ 

This may say nothing about a food’s health merits but instead refer to the manufacturing process. 

Health symbols 

Symbols such as the Heart Foundation tick and Health Star Rating (HSR) may give some indication of a product’s health merits. However, such symbols should not be interpreted in isolation. It is still important to review the nutrition information panel to assess factors such as saturated fat and sugar content. The Low-GI certified symbol does indicate that a food is high in fibre and has been shown in testing to have a low glycaemic index.  

  1. Be a packet detective  

All those tiny words on food packaging can tell you more than you think. The ingredients list is particularly revealing. Not only does it disclose what is in a product, which is critical information for those with food allergies or intolerances or conditions such as coeliac disease and IBS, but it can help you to gauge the quality of a food (may lower quality products are bulked out with ‘filler’ ingredients). What’s more, if you know you or a family member is sensitive to certain chemicals or additives, you can look for these in the fine print. Another useful piece of information relates to food safety. It is important to strictly follow the ‘use by’ dates and instructions for safe storage such as ‘refrigerate after opening’.   

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Ingredients order 

The order in which ingredients are listed indicates which are most prominent in a product. This can indicate the quality of a product. 

Allergy and intolerance triggers 

From obvious ingredients such as nuts and seeds and their oils to chemicals or additives to which you or a family member have a sensitivity, the ingredients list is key to making safe food decisions.  

‘Use by’ and storage advice 

While the ‘best before’ date can tell you when a product is at its best quality, the ‘use by’ date is critical to ensure safe consumption. It is also important to follow storage advice such as refrigeration after opening and how long the product will last after opening.  

If you’d like to learn to choose healthier products and meal options for you or your family, an accredited practising dietitian can equip you with the knowledge you need to eat well for life. 

Elizabeth About Author

Elizabeth

Dual passions for food and health led Soaring Health dietitian Liz to study dietetics, but what really drives her is seeing the tangible differences dietary changes can make to a person’s health and wellbeing – from managing disease symptoms to sustainable weight loss. With a professional goal to “allow my patients to become the best they can be” by translating nutrition science into practical, realistic food recommendations, Liz has a refreshingly human approach.

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