Understanding food labels
How to read food labels
How to read product labels to make healthy choices
Being armed with information like how much saturated fat, sugar and protein a product contains in a single serve, as well as whether it’s rich in healthy nutrients like fibre and calcium, is key to making healthier food choices. Here’s what you need to know.
The nutrition information panel
That little box of numbers on every food package can be challenging to decipher if you’re not exactly sure what each thing listed means or how much of the key ‘ingredients’ you should be aiming for, in the first place. Here’s a handy breakdown.
• Serving size
Nutrition information panels show the nutritional values for a product 'per serve' as well as 'per 100g'. With a product like bread, a serve may be one or two slices but for other products it might not be as simple. One serve may only be a fraction of the package contents, and a fraction of what you would normally eat. You need to multiply the information given by the number of serves you actually eat. But, because the size of a single serve may differ between manufacturers and products – even when you’re comparing apples with apples – the 100g or 100ml column is the best way to compare the nutrients in similar products.
Energy is mostly expressed in kilojoules, but you will also see calories as well. Where possible, choose the product with the least kilojoules or calories.
This is the amount of total protein the food contains measured in grams.
• Total fat
This is the total fat that the food contains, in grams. High-fat foods tend to be high in kilojoules. As a general rule try to choose foods that contain less than 10g of fat per 100g, or 2g per 100g for milk, yoghurt and ice-cream.
• Saturated fat
Saturated fats are found predominantly in fatty cuts of meat, chicken skin, full-fat dairy products, baked goods, deep-fried takeaways and tropical oils. Aim to choose foods with the least amount of saturated fat – less than 3g per 100g is best.
Also consider whether a food might contain 'trans fats', which are unsaturated fats that act like saturated fats. Australian food manufacturers aren’t required to include trans fats on a food label unless they’re making a nutrition claim about something like cholesterol or fat content, so you won’t always see that information on the label. To limit trans fats in your diet, follow similar tips to those used to limit saturated fat: avoid deep-fried fast foods; limit manufactured biscuits, cakes and pies; remove any visible fat off meat (including chicken skin); and opt for low-fat dairy foods.
• Total carbohydrate
This is the amount of total carbohydrate per serving measured in grams. It includes sugars plus complex carbohydrates that are more slowly digested. You may also see glycaemic index (GI) information listed. Foods with a low GI raise blood sugar levels more slowly than foods with a high GI.
These are the natural and added sugars, separated from the total carbohydrates. It is generally best to choose foods with less sugar. As a guide, 30g of sugars per 100g is considered a large amount, while 2g of sugars per 100g is considered a small amount.
Or in other words, how much salt a product contains. It can be present in large volumes in processed foods, so where possible look for low-sodium products that have less than 120mg sodium per 100g.
If a product makes a claim such as 'high in fibre' or 'high in calcium' the label must include information about that nutrient, and in many cases must also contain a certain amount of the nutrient in order to make that claim. Also look out for other nutrition claims on labels:
• No added sugar means the product doesn’t contain any added sugar, but it might still contain natural sugars (so may not be a low-sugar food).
• Reduced fat means the product contains at least 25% less fat than the original product. It doesn't necessarily mean that it is low in fat.
• Low fat means there’s less than 3 per cent fat in solid foods and less than 1.5 per cent in liquid products.
• Fat free means the product contains less than 0.15 per cent fat.
Ingredients are listed in decreasing order by weight. So the ingredient listed first on a product’s ‘ingredients list’ is present in the food in the largest amount.
'Use-by' and 'best-before' date
Foods with a shelf life of less than two years are stamped with a 'best-before' date. It’s okay to eat the product after this date, but some of the quality of the food may be reduced.
Foods that should not be consumed after a certain date for health and safety reasons, such as meat and dairy, must carry a 'use-by' date.
You shouldn’t eat any food that is past its 'use-by' date. Some foods such as bread carry a 'baked on' date so you can tell how fresh the product is.