Confused about food labels? You’re not alone. Dietitian and WF expert Caitlin Reid decodes them and shows us what to look for
Navigating supermarket aisles is time-consuming enough, but when you throw in deciphering food labels, grocery shopping can be one epic visit. Rows and rows of brightly packaged food products all screaming their nutritional praises make it almost impossible to select the healthiest ones in a reasonable amount of time.
However, knowing what's in the food you eat will not only help
you make the most nutritious choice, new Spanish research suggests
it will also help you stay slim. So, next time you're strolling
down the aisle, keep these pointers in mind.
Don't be conned by the claims
You'll often see nutrition claims, such as low fat, sugar free or high fibre splashed across the front of packs in big, bright, text. They're designed to grab your attention and make you choose one product over another. But tread carefully as these claims don't tell you everything about the product. A product may be "low fat", but it doesn't mean it's healthy - it can still be high in sugar and/or salt.
While the good people at Food Standards Australia New Zealand
regulate nutrition claims, it doesn't stop the food manufacturer
from emphasising one nutrition fact over other important ones. So
always acknowledge the claims, but make a more informed choice by
turning over the pack and reading the ingredients list and
nutrition information panel.
Keep the list short and sweet
Scanning through the ingredients list is one quick way to determine whether a food product is a good choice or not. When it comes to nutrition, the shorter the list, the better, as a long ingredients list usually means the product is highly processed and thus unhealthy.If you don't recognise some of the ingredients, put the food back on the shelf.
The order of ingredients also matters, as the ingredients are
listed in order by descending weight. That means the first
ingredient is the most abundant in the product. If sugar, salt or
fat feature in the first three ingredients, you've got a bomb in
Obey the serving size
Before you down a bottle of fruit juice at lunch, check the number of serves. At first glance, many drinks and foods may appear to be a single serving, but read the fine print and you'll be surprised to find they are actually divided into two or more servings. Twice the number of serves comes with twice the number of kilojoules.
Some of the biggest offenders are fruit juices, soft drinks,
flavoured milk and yoghurts, which contain multiple servings even
though they're sold as individual serves. Always check the serving
size and the nutrition information, and compare it to how much you
are actually consuming. You may be surprised to find you are eating
more than you should be.
If you're like most people, your eyes probably go straight to check the fat, sugar and salt content in a product. One thing that's often overlooked however is the amount of energy or kilojoules in the food.
The average adult needs about 8700kJ per day, but depending on your activity levels, age, height and weight, you may need more or less than this. Enjoying a slice of banana bread with a large skim latte provides more than a third of your daily energy needs and many people would consider this a snack!
Some products actually show the percentage daily intake (%DI or
how much a particular food contributes to your day's intake) in the
nutrition information panel. Whether %DI is included on the pack or
not, always look at the energy content of the foods you buy. Make
every food choice count by maximising the amount of nutrients you
receive in each kilojoule you consume.
Pick local produce
All foods are required to state the country where the food is made or produced. If the ingredients are imported and the food is transformed and packaged in Australia this needs to be shown on the label with the words 'Made in Australia', 'Australian Made' or 'Manufactured in Australia'. Look for 'Product of Australia' which means the product is made in Australia from Australian ingredients, as it's a great way to support local manufacturers.
Making the best choice
Low fat, reduced salt, high calcium, natural sugar...There seems to be so many variations of a product. But you can make the most nutritious choices with your everyday foods by looking for the following:
Milk: Look for an energy content of 250kJ or less per 100ml; total fat content of 2g or less per 100g; and a calcium content around 120mg per 100ml.
Bread: Look for bread containing at least 51 per cent wholegrains and a sodium content of 500mg or less per 100g. Don't shy away from breads with a slightly higher fat content, as they usually have higher levels of healthy unsaturated fats thanks to their added seeds and nuts. Go for at least 4g of fibre per 100g.
Yoghurt: You should be aiming for an energy content of 350kJ or less per 100g and choose a low-fat variety. Opt for yoghurt that's sweetened with natural sugars and contains as few additives as possible. A calcium content of 100mg per 100g is recommended.
Cheese: While aged and processed cheese, such
as cheddar and brie, is higher in fat than unripened cheese like
cottage cheese, always look for reduced-fat varieties (17g of
saturated fat per 100g for ages cheese or 5g for unripened
varieties), as they're also lower in saturated fat. Stock up on
reduced-salt ones and ensure they're also source of calcium.
Ingredients in disguise
Sugar, fat and salt can appear under different labels on the ingredients list. Don't get caught out - keep an eye out for these nutrient disguises:
Sugar: sucrose; fructose; maltose; glucose; dextrose; lactose; honey; golden syrup; treacle; corn syrup; fruit-juice concentrate; molasses; palm sugar.
Fat: butter; margarine; animal fat; vegetable oil; shortening; dripping; ghee; lard; palm oil; tallow; suet; copha; coconut cream; full cream milk solids; hydrogenated oil/fat.
Salt: baking soda; baking powder; sodium bicarbonate; monosodium glutamate; vegetable salt; rock salt; sea salt; garlic salt; stock cubes; sodium sorbate; chicken salt; sodium nitrate.