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How to understand food labels
Posted 3 April 2019
We chat to Dietician Themis Chryssidis to understand how to read food labels to make it easy for you, and most importantly, empower you to make informed decisions when it comes to buying your groceries.
If you don’t know how to read a food label, you’re at the mercy of the vague nutrient and health claims of food manufacturers, or you end up making broad generalised statements such as “low fat means high sugar,” which certainly isn’t true.
The only way to truly know what you’re putting in your trolley and body, is to read (and understand) the food label. Here’s how:
1. All food products manufactured for sale in Australia must include:
- Ingredient list
- Nutrition information panel (NIP)
- Date of production
- Used by or best before date
- Allergen or gluten statement (if applicable)
2. Ingredient lists
All the ingredients in a product are listed in order of weight from highest to lowest. The ingredient list must also specify the percentage of any characterising ingredient, for example, the percentage of strawberries in strawberry jam.
So, if an ingredient list contains a large amount of low nutrient ingredients, especially towards the start of the list, such as salt or sugar, the product probably requires a little more consideration!
3. Nutrition and health claims
Nutrition and health claims and nutrition information panels (NIP) are two very different things!
Nutrition and health claims
Nutrition claims and health claims are vague statements made by food manufacturers to make a product sound more appealing. Ultimately these statements are irrelevant. Just because one cereal says “high in fibre” doesn’t mean that it’s higher in fibre than another cereal that doesn’t include this statement, or even higher in fibre than another cereal that does include the statement! Ultimately read the NIP and judge for yourself.
Nutrition information panels (NIP)
The information found in a nutrition information panel refers directly to the nutrient content of the product. You’re free to interpret this objective data and make your own opinion about the nutrient quality of the food and whether you want to purchase it.
4. Interpreting nutrition information panels
All NIPs must display
- The average serving size
- The average quantity of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar and sodium per serve and per 100g
- The average quantity of a nutrient that has been mentioned in a nutrient claim
When interpreting a NIP, always compare products per 100g and avoid comparing per serve as the serving size is determined by the manufacturer and can often differ between products. We want to compare apples with apples!
- Total fat – less than 10g per 100g
- Saturated fat – less than 3g per 100g
- Sodium – less than 120mg per 100g
- Sugar – less than 10g per 100g
- Dietary fibre – more than 4g per 100g
- Fruit can be higher in sugar than other ingredients, however it is also nutrient dense, therefore if fruit is contributing sugar to a product look for products with less than 15g of sugar per 100g.
- When it comes to breakfast cereals look for products greater than 7g of fibre per 100g.
- Consider how nutrients interact. If for example a product contains 17g of sugar per 100g and some of this is from fruit, but it also contains a large amount of fibre (12g per 100g) or a large amount of healthy fats, then the product may still be considered healthy and perhaps a better choice than a low sugar and low fibre product.
Experience Health Partners Generous
Themis Chryssidis is an Accredited Practising Dietitian at Sprout Health Studio – a multidisciplinary health care studio in Adelaide. He has a Bachelor of Psychology, a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Cert IV in Fitness.