Figuring out food labels

You walk into the supermarket and it is a minefield with the options you are presented with. Ideally, you want to avoid processed and packaged food however sometimes this isn’t realistic. I get it sometimes I like a packet of chips as well! You look at a food label and you think what the hell am I looking at! Here is a breakdown of what it all means and what to look out for. 

Nutrition panel 

In Australia, the nutrition panel provides information on the average amount of energy (in kilojoules), protein, fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in the food. If a product is making a claim, for example high in calcium it must also be included on the nutrition panel with the calcium content of the product.

When comparing products always compare them using the 100g panel as the manufacturer decides the serving sizes, which can vary widely between brands.

Ingredients

Foods are listed in the order of the amount contained in the product. If it is listed first it has the most of that ingredient in the product and so on. 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates on the nutrition panel include starches and sugars. This includes starch found in foods such as white, wholemeal and wholegrain varieties of cereal, bread, rice, and pasta, together with root vegetables and legumes, as well as any sugar or starch that has been added by the manufacturer. 

Sugar

Sugar on the nutrition panel will include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, as well as added sugar. Sugar can be added to food for taste, colour, flavour, bulk, texture, fermentation and preservation. 

Added sugar can be listed as an ingredient under many different names. There are over 50 different names for sugar! 😲 Some of these include:  fructose, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, glucose, brown sugar, corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup, barley malt, cane sugar, yellow sugar, agave nectar, rice syrup, cane juice, cane sugar and caster sugar. 

If sugar is listed within the first 3 ingredients be very careful as the product will most likely be high in sugar. Excess sugar can lead to weight gain, blood sugar problems and an increase risk of heart disease.

Fats

Fat is listed on the nutrition panel as total fat. The total fat is made up of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. If the food contains saturated fat, it must be listed separately. Avoid trans fats as they are variants of unsaturated fats, which have been chemically altered to improve their physical characteristics. They are often found in margarine, vegetable shortening, pastries and is the oil used to deep fry fast foods. Trans fats have been found to raise bad cholesterol (LDL’s) and increase your risk of heart disease.

Artificial flavours, preservatives, and colourings. 

Artificial flavours, preservatives, and colourings will be listed in the ingredient section of the packaging. Artificial flavours are used to alter or intensify the taste of the product. Preservatives are used to help protect against food deterioration caused by micro-organisms. Colourings are used in products to add or restore colour to foods. 

These ingredients are associated with numbers and there are so many of them! Take note of numbers appearing in the list of ingredients. Purchasing a handy pocket book guide or downloading an app to help navigate additives, preservatives and colourings is definitely worthwhile. The chemical maze is a great shopping companion. It works on a smiley face system, happy, neutral and sad. Easy to use and understand. Artificial flavours, preservatives, and colourings may be associated with headaches, allergies, and changes in behaviour.

Sodium / Salt

Salt has been used a food preservative and flavour enhancer for a long time! It is included on the nutrition panel because high levels of sodium have been linked with high blood pressure and stroke.

What is a lot or a little?  

Here is a list of nutrients and what is a little and what is a lot per 100g.

NUTRIENT     A LOT (per 100g) A  LITTLE (per 100g)

Sugar  10 grams 2 grams

Fat 20 grams 3 grams

Fibre 3 grams 0.5 grams

Sodium / salt  0.5 grams 0.1 gram

It’s important to take the time to look at the ingredients and nutrition panel to see what is actually included, because there can be lots of hidden surprises! Take the time to look (yes the first couple of times it may take longer to do the shopping!) and decide what the best option is because its easy to get caught out, even if you think the food is healthy. Keeping in mind to revisit items as companies can change the ingredients at any time.