How to: Read a Food Label


Food labels are there to tell you what’s in a product. They can help you make healthier choices when choosing products at the supermarket.

Image: Shutterstock.com

But making healthy choices – and choosing the healthiest food product – can be a little daunting when you’re faced with confusing tables, columns and numbers, and claims.

Here’s how to do it …

What you’ll typically find on a food label

  • Name of the product and brand
  • Nutrition claims
  • The use-by date
  • Weight
  • Allergy information – warnings about the presence of allergens such as gluten, dairy, milk, nuts etc.  
  • Storage instructions
  • Cooking instructions as required
  • Country of origin
  • The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
  • The ingredients list

The ingredients list

The ingredients list describes what is in the product – it’s like the recipe.  The ingredients in a product are listed from largest to least amount by weight. So, if salt (sodium), sugar or fat are listed in the first four ingredients, the product is going to be high in added salt, sugar, fat.

But it’s not as straightforward as looking out for the words ‘salt’, ‘sugar’ and ‘fat’ when reading a label. There are other words used to mean the same thing. Sneaky!

Other names for sugar

Look for words that end in -ose! 🙂

Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, and raw sugar.

Other names for fat

Beef fat, butter, cream, coconut oil/cream/milk, copha, hydrogenated oils, margarine, milk solids, chocolate, ghee, vegetable oil, dripping, lard, oil, sour cream, and vegetable shortening.  

Other names for salt

Baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, meat/yeast extract, monosodium glutamate (MSG), onion salt, rock salt, sea salt, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, stock cubes, and vegetable salt.

Understanding nutritional claims

Food labels may also display different nutrition claims, which may sometimes be misleading. So, it’s a good idea to know what they mean. But when in doubt, don’t just go by what the product claims – make sure you always consult the NIP and the ingredients list as well.

Some common nutrition claims are:

  • Low fat – for a product to be low fat, it must contain no more than 3g fat per 100g or 1.5g/100ml for liquid.  
  • Reduced fat/salt – the product contains at least 25% less fat/salt than in the same amount of the original product.
  • Reduced energy/Light/Lite – the product contains at least 25% less energy than in the same amount of the original product. Always check the NIP because ‘light/lite’ could actually be referring to the colour/texture of the product.   
  • Diet – the average energy content of the food is no more than about 80kJ/100ml for liquid food or about 171kJ/100g for solid food, or the food contains at least 40% less energy than in the same amount of the original product. Also, the food product must be artificially sweetened.
  • No added salt/sugar – the food product contains no added salt or sodium compound/sugars (honey, malt or malt extracts, and fruit juice); no added salt/sugar is added to the food during production.

NB: No added sugar means no table sugar (or sucrose) has been added to the product. It does not mean that the product is low in sugar! Make sure you check the labels!

“For example, some yoghurts are sweetened with fruit juice concentrates, which is essentially the same as adding sugar.”Simone Austin, Advanced Sports Dietitian, ‘Eat Like An Athlete – Boost Your Performance And Energy Through Nutrition’, page 196.

But don’t just go by what the product claims!

Look at the numbers and use this guide to interpret the information. This will let you make the best possible choice for your health!

How to read the NIP

Knowing how to interpret the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) and ingredients list can help you make healthier choices when choosing between similar products in the supermarket.

The NIP can be a little daunting and confusing, but with a little practice using this to compare products will be the best thing since, well… sliced bread.

Serving Size vs Per 100g Serve

There are two columns in the NIP – the per serve column and the per 100g column.

Use the per 100g column when you’re comparing the nutritional information of similar products, such as packaged soups, bread, breakfast cereals or snack items.

Different brands have different serving sizes, so the per 100g column helps to compare the nutritional information based on a 100g serve – like with like kinda thing! 🙂

Serving Size

When you’re trying to figure out how much you will actually eat on purchasing the product, use the Per Serve column.

But be mindful to check the recommended portion size; some products will say that the product is two serves when in fact it can be easily enjoyed in one sitting.

Protein

For a food product to be a good source of protein it should contain at least 5g of protein per serve.

Total Fat

In general, choose foods that have less than 10g fat per 100g.

For milk, yoghurt and ice-cream aim for less than 2g per 100g. For cheese, aim for less than 15g per 100g.

Saturated Fat

You will find saturated fat listed under total fat. Aim for less than 3g per 100g.

Sugar

This is a tricky one and can be a cause for confusion.

Sugar (listed underneath the total carbohydrates) on a food label typically refers to the ‘added’ sugar in the product, not the sugar naturally found in fruit, veggies and milk!

In general, aim for less than 10g sugar per 100g. But there are a couple of exceptions:

  • FRUIT: If the product has a considerable amount of fruit in it, aim for less than 20g sugar per 100g.
  • YOGHURT: A good guide for yoghurts that are flavoured with fruit is less than 12g sugar per 100g.

If it’s more than this, see if ‘sugar’ is listed in the first four items on the ingredients. If it is then chances are the product is high in added sugar and is probably best as a real treat food – or left on the shelf.

A little more on sugar, sugar!

For health, it’s important to cut down your intake of added sugar as much as possible. This is the sugar that is sometimes referred to as ‘free sugar’ and is the sugar that is added to food during processing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends we limit our added sugar intake to no more than 10% of our total energy (kJ) intake (preferably 5% for extra health benefits).

So, if you’re consuming 8000kJ on average, this means limiting your intake of sugar to 47 grams, which is about 12 teaspoons! And ideally, it means cutting down to 24g or 6 teaspoons per day.

Completely cutting out sugar is unnecessary!

But we should all limit it as much as possible – even those of us who are active.

Dietary Fibre

When it comes to breads and cereals, typically, you want to be choosing food that is high in dietary fibre (ahem, gut health!). Although, yes, if you’re an athlete there will be times when you’ll want to opt for a low fibre option such as before a race or major event (because well – who wants to spend race morning on the port-a-loo!).

When choosing your breakfast cereal or beard, try to aim for at least 4g fibre per serve (or 8+ grams per 100g). Anything less than this is considered low in fibre.

Sodium (salt)

Ideally, aim for less than 120mg per 100g (this is best!) but food with less than 400mg per 100g is OK for general health. Anything more than 400mg per 100g is considered high salt!

Remember though, salt requirements are very individual, particularly if you’re an athlete who is training a lot and sweating buckets! The guidelines above are based on a general person’s requirements – they’re not specific to athletes.

In my next post, I’ll go through a food product to show you how reading a food label comes together in the everyday! 🙂

Want to know more about how to read food labels? Get in touch! I’d love to help.


References: 

‘Eat Like An Athlete – Boost Your Performance And Energy Through Nutrition.’ Simone Austin, Advanced Sports Dietitian. (c) Simone Austin 2019. Published by in 2019 by Hardie Grant Books.

‘How to Understand Food Labels’ – eatforhealth.gov.au accessed 05/03/2019. 

‘Reading Food Labels’ – health.qld.gov.au accessed 05/03/2019. 

Australia New Zealand Food Standard Code – Schedule 4 – Nutrition, health and related claims. Authorised Version F2017C00711 registered 08/09/2017. 

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