Confused about food labels? You’re not alone. Here’s what to look for.
Navigating the supermarket aisles is time-consuming enough, but when you throw in deciphering food labels, grocery shopping can be one epic affair. Rows and rows of brightly packaged food products all screaming their own nutritional praises make it almost impossible to select the most nutritious product in a reasonable amount of time. But, knowing what is in the food you eat will not only help you make the most nutritious choice, new Spanish research suggests it will also help you stay slim. So, next time you’re strolling down the aisle, add these pointers to your shopping list.
1. Don’t be conned by the claims
Nutrition claims are those brightly coloured words such as “low fat” or “high fibre” splashed across the front of pack. They’re designed to grab your attention and make you choose one product over another. But tread carefully as these claims don’t tell you everything about the product. A food may be “low fat”, but it doesn’t mean it’s “healthy”- it can still be high in sugar and/or salt. While the people at Food Standards Australia New Zealand regulate nutrition claims, it doesn’t stop the food manufacturer from emphasising one nutrition fact over other important ones. So always acknowledge the claims, but make a more informed choice by turning over the pack and reading the ingredients list and nutrition information panel.
2. Keep the list short and sweet
Scanning the length of the ingredients list is one quick way to determine whether a food product is a good choice. When it comes to nutrition, the shorter the list, the better, as a long ingredients list usually means the product is highly processed. If you don’t recognise some of the ingredients, put the food back on the shelf. The order of ingredients also matters, as the ingredients are listed in order by descending weight. That means the first ingredient is the most abundant in the product. If sugar, salt or fat feature in the first three ingredients, the product is unlikely to be a good choice.
3. Stick to the serving size
Before you dive into a bottle of fruit juice at lunch, check the number of serves. Many drinks and foods may appear at first glance to be a single serving but read the fine print and you may be surprised to find they are actually divided into two or more servings. Twice the number of serves comes with twice the number of kilojoules. Some of the biggest offenders are fruit juices, soft drinks, flavoured milk and yoghurts, which contain multiple servings even though they’re sold as “individual” serves. Always check the serving size and the nutrition information per serving of food, and compare it to how much you are actually consuming. You may be surprised to find you are eating more than you should be.
4. Essential energy
If you’re like most people, your eyes probably go straight to check the fat, sugar and salt content in a product. One thing that’s often overlooked however is the amount of energy or kilojoules in the food. The average adult needs 8700kJ per day, but depending on your activity levels, age, height and weight, you may need more or less than this. Enjoying a slice of banana bread with a large skim latte provides more than a third of your daily energy needs and many people would consider this a snack! Some products show the percentage daily intake (%DI or how much a particular food contributes to your day’s intake) in the nutrition information panel, but the %DI labelling is up to the manufacturer so not all food products will include it. Whether %DI is included on the pack or not, always look at the energy content of the foods you buy. Make every food choice count by maximising the amount of nutrients you receive in each kilojoule you consume.
5. Choose local produce
All foods are required to state the country where the food is made or produced. If the ingredients are imported and the food simply packaged in Australia this needs to be shown on the label with the words “Made in Australia”. “Product of Australia” means the product is made in Australia from Australian ingredients, and is a great way to support local produce.
6. Ingredients in disguise
Sugar, fat and salt can appear under different labels on the ingredients list. Don’t get caught out – keep an eye out for these nutrient disguises:
- Sugar: sucrose; fructose; maltose; glucose; dextrose; lactose; honey; golden syrup; treacle; corn syrup; fruit-juice concentrate; molasses; palm sugar.
- Fat: butter; margarine; animal fat; vegetable oil; shortening; dripping; ghee; lard; palm oil; tallow; suet; copha; coconut cream; full cream milk solids; hydrogenated oil/fat.
- Salt: baking soda; baking powder; sodium bicarbonate; monosodium glutamate; vegetable salt; rock salt; sea salt; garlic salt; stock cubes; sodium sorbate; chicken salt; sodium nitrate.
Photo Credit: Ingimage
About the author
Caitlin Reid is a unique health professional with qualifications as an accredited nutritionist, accredited exercise physiologist and yoga teacher. Caitlin is passionate about all things health and wellness, and keeps up-to-date with the latest health research, which she uses when contributing expert advice to health, fitness, lifestyle and food companies. She is also the nutrition expert for the Women’s Fitness magazine, the dietitian for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and ambassador for Papaya Australia. Follow Caitlin on Instagram @caitlinareid or visit her website.