Food packaging labels are a small-print minefield of numbers, nutrients and ingredients, but never fear — dietitian Catherine Saxelby shows you how to decode food labels!
You’re standing in an aisle in the supermarket. It’s the weekend, you’ve been flat out, and to top it all off, 12 types of grainy bread are staring back at you and you don’t know which one to choose. Sound familiar?
When you start to feel overwhelmed, it can seem all too hard to check the labels for the most nutritious choice. Yet being a discerning shopper means you and your family will enjoy the healthiest food.
To make your life a little easier, we’ve created this label reading guide so you can make healthier choices at the supermarket.
Your 3-step guide to savvy shopping
Next time you hit the shops, use these three simple steps to decode food labels.
Check front-of-pack claims
Manufacturers often use clever wording like ‘low in salt’ and ‘97% fat free’, but there are lots of rules about such nutrient claims. For instance, a ‘low-salt’ food must have no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g. A food claiming to be ‘97% fat free’ must have a maximum of 3 per cent fat. It really means the same thing, but the reverse sounds better! You can verify these claims by reading the nutrition information panel on the product.
Scan the ingredients list
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, from the largest down to the smallest. Pay attention to the first three ingredients. If the first three are some form of sugar, fat or flour, the food is unlikely to be healthy — as with muffins, biscuits or snack foods. Don’t forget that these ingredients can appear under other names (see below).
If an ingredient is part of a food’s brand name or is pictured on the front of its packaging, you’ll find the food’s percentage of that ingredient in the list. For instance, you’ll see some brands of almond milk biscuits have a paltry 2 per cent of almonds in them, and sugar is listed higher in the ingredients list.
Fat in disguise
Sugar in disguise
rice malt syrup
Salt in disguise
monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Compare nutrition panels
At the top of any panel, you’ll find the serving size, which has been set by the manufacturer. This must be defined (such as, 75g or half a cup), along with the number of servings you’ll get from a whole package.
The ‘per serve’ column
is handy for estimating how much you should eat. You can quickly see how much fat, fibre, sodium or kilojoules (calories) you’re getting from one serving. This may influence how much — or how little — of a serving you want to eat.
The ‘per 100g’ column
— which lives next to the ‘per serving’ column — is the most important column. That’s because serving sizes can often vary dramatically between brands of the same product. However, the 100g benchmark doesn’t change. The 100g is really handy to compare similar products. For instance, which stock has the least sodium? Which cereal has the most fibre?
Check the serving size
Some foods look like a single serving when they’re really meant to be two or more!
Use the 'per 100g' column to compare the amount of nutrients in similar packaged foods.
Label reading cheat sheet
Easy health guidelines to aim for are:
Less than 10g fat per 100g
Less than 15g sugar per 100g
Less than 120mg sodium per 100g
Food manufacturers often use brightly coloured words and logos to grab your attention so you’ll pick up their product. The good news: some logos are certified by reputable organisations to make product choices a lot easier.
Crossed grain symbol
The symbol of the crossed grain in a circle is important to those who need to follow a strict gluten-free diet. The symbol is endorsed by the Coeliac Society, which has the final say about gluten labelling on foods.
If you don’t have a medical reason to steer clear of gluten, then don’t. A gluten-free diet can be low in fibre, highly processed and costly — the opposite of what you should be eating.
Glycemic index (gi) symbol
The Low GI Symbol means the product has been certified by the Glycemic Index Foundation with a low Glycemic Index (GI).This tells you that the quality of the carbohydrate has been taken into account — something the Health Star Rating doesn’t do.
The lower the GI, the slower blood glucose levels rise when the food is consumed — a big help for people with diabetes.
The low-GI symbol is useful when choosing breads, rice, muffins and yoghurts, because you can’t just assume they have a low-GI. It means you can trust the GI value stated is accurate.
Health star rating
The Health Star Rating ranks products on a scale from a half star to five stars. Foods with five stars are the best nutrition choice. As of 2019, more than 4000 packets carry these stars.
The ranking is worked out from an algorithm based on kilojoules, plus three ‘negative’ nutrients —saturated fat, sugars and sodium. This is counterbalanced against protein, fibre and the content of fruit, vegies, nuts and legumes.
The Health Star Rating is designed to help you quickly decide the healthier packaged foods to buy. Use it to compare similar products, such as two breakfast cereals, or two muesli bars. The stars are used only for manufactured foods — not fresh.
More recently, you may have started to see the FODMAP Friendly certification logo.
It’s designed to help people who have symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and are following a low-FODMAP diet, so they can easily identify suitable packaged food products. It takes the time and guesswork out of scanning ingredient lists.
The word FODMAP is an acronym used for a collection of short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that aren’t absorbed properly in the gut, which can trigger symptomsin people with IBS.
4 label reading traps
Discounts, two-for-one deals and marketing hype can all encourage you to make unhealthy in-store choices. Here are common traps and how to avoid them.
Believing ‘no-added-sugar’ claims
Sugar may not have been added to the product, but that doesn’t mean the product is sugar-free. Maple syrup, rice malt syrup, honey and fruit juices will have a high natural sugar content, so check the nutritional information panel.
Rule of thumb: If it tastes sweet, that sensation on your tongue is generally due to some type of sugar.
Ignoring serving sizes
When you’re pouring straight from the box or snacking straight out the pack, it’s easy to ignore the manufacturer’s serving size suggestion. However, you could be consuming twice the recommended serve!
Remember, serving sizes can vary greatly, even within brands, so check out how much the serving size is the first time you try a new product.
Rule of thumb: Use small cups, plates and bowls to help reduce your portions.
Falling for ‘health halo’ claims
Claims like ‘natural’, ‘real’ or ‘with antioxidants’ cannot be defined and are very subjective. They can be a sneaky way of making you assume a product is healthy when it’s not.
A chocolate bar rich in antioxidants will still contain a lot of fat, sugar and kilojoules, so it doesn’t match the health benefits you get from fruit and vegetables. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Rule of thumb: Check the ingredients list — and approach these products with a sceptical eye.
Thinking ‘vegan’ means healthy
It’s natural to be attracted to the trend of the moment, but just because it’s labelled vegan, it’s not necessarily better for you. Chips, sweets and meat-free bacon can be classified as vegan, yet be highly processed with few nutrients. It pays to be a tad sceptical.
Rule of thumb: Base your core diet on minimally processed whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.