Learning how to read and understand food labels can help you to make healthier choices.
What is on a food label?
- Name or description of the food
- Ingredients list
- Nutrition information panel
- Storage and cooking instructions
- Date mark: use by and/or best before date
- Allergen warnings
The Ingredients List
You can usually find the ingredient list on the back of packaged food. Ingredients are listed in order from largest to smallest in quantity. So, if trans-fat, sugar or salt are near the top of the list, the food is unlikely to be a healthy choice.
Sugar and fat are often listed in the ingredient list under different names.Common names for sugar added to foods are corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose, honey, invert sugar, golden syrup, maple syrup, and treacle. Common names for fat added to foods are butter, coconut cream, cream, hydrogenated vegetable fat, lard, margarine, oil, trans fats, triglycerides, vegetable oil. Think of whole foods and predominantly going for foods with the least amount of ingredients if you can!
The nutrition information panel
Most packaged foods must have a nutrition information panel. The nutrition information panel has a breakdown of all the different nutrients which are in the food. Some foods don’t need to have one – this includes food in very small packages, and foods with little nutritional value such as tea, coffee, herbs and spices.
The panel has information about how much energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate,
sugar and sodium are in the food. It might also list other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.
There are two columns on the nutrition information panel. One panel lists the amount of nutrients “per serve”, the other lists the amount “per 100 g” (or 100 ml if liquid). Use the 100 g column to compare similar foods and choose healthier products.
What does the ‘per serving’ column mean?
Food manufactures suggest a serving size for their product. For example (in the picture above) 2 slices of bread per serve or 2 biscuits per serve or 200ml per serve of juice, etc. The serving size varies for each product which is what you need to be aware of when you are comparing various products. Don’t assume the serving size is the right amount for you as everyone has different requirements. This is just a standard guide for consumers to follow.
The serving size for this Orange Juice states 200mls (five servings in a 1 litre bottle). Most people would fill a medium- large glass averaging 300-350mls in one serve. You are nearly having double the amount of recommended ‘serving’ . This is why you should always compare the 100g column with other similar products.
It can be confusing and time consuming having to compare labels BUT there are a couple of great apps that can help you out such as:
Remember that supermarkets are layed out so that most of the whole foods items are right around the edges of the building (e.g fruits and vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy, etc) and the processed foods are in the middle. Try to obtain a diet rich in whole foods with minimal processed for optimal health (but still indulge in your favourite treat every now and again).