The art of reading food labels
and interpreting the products
November 5th 2015
Reading food labels can be challenging in itself, let alone trying to understand them and compare products based on their nutritional composition. Therefore I thought I would give you a quick and easy guide on how to read food labels accurately, with an emphasis on what you should be looking for in a healthy product.
How to read food labels:
When you look at a nutrition information panel you will see a table with a breakdown of the major food groups listen in the rows and the amount of the nutrient that is present in the meal in columns. There are two columns in a nutritional information panel. The first column usually tells you how many grams of each nutrient are present in one serve of that product. Directly above the table should be the average serving size for this product. For example you may have a 200g product which is considered 4 servings and therefore each serving is 50g. You can use this information along with the per serve column to determine how much of each nutrient you will consume if you consume 1 serving of the product. If you intent on eating 2 servings of the product (eg: 100g) then you would need to multiply the per serve column statistics by 2 to figure out how many grams of each nutrient you would be consuming.
The second column tells you how many grams of each nutrient are present in 100g of that product. By looking at this column you can compare different products against each other without having to take into consideration portion size. Essentially this means you can look at two different nutritional panels on food labels and pick the healthier option but comparing how many grams of each nutrient are present in 100g of each product.
The nutrition information panel should also contain a list of ingredients that can be used to assess the suitability of a food product for individuals with food intolerances or allergies. It is important to note that there are many industrial names for common nutrients such a sugar and salt that can mislead people. Therefore if you are looking for products without a certain nutrient you should research some of the other commonly used ingredient names.
What should you be looking for in a healthy product:
Now all of these tips on how to read a food label are absolutely useless if you don't know how many grams of each nutrient you should be looking for in each 100g of the product. So here is a guideline of what to look for in to per 100g column.
For milk, yoghurt and ice cream aim for less than 2g of total fat per 100g
For all other general products aim for less than 10g of total fat per 100g
Aim for less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g
Not all products contain fibre, however when buying breads and cereals look for products with more than 3g of fibre per serving
Aim for less than 5g of sugar per 100g
Always opt for products that have ‘low salt’ or 'no added salt' labels. Specifically aim for products that contain between 120-400mg of sodium per 100g. This is especially important if you have a medical requirement of a low sodium diet.
Ideally each main meal you consume should consist of approximately 1500-1700 kJ and each snack in between main meals should not exceed 600kJ. People often also get consumed between Kilojoules (kJ), Calories (Kcal, C) and calories (c). At the end of the day the difference between those 3 measures of energy can be confusing. The important thing to remember is how to convert energy between each measure. So 1 Calorie (kcal or C) is equal to 1000 calories (c). And 1 Calories (kcal or C) is equal to 4.184kJ. This can help you convert energy content into the same unit for the easy comparison of different products.
For a more detailed explanation of how to accurately read food labels please refer to the below ‘Eat For Health’ Government pamphlet.