Understanding food labels

With the introduction of the Health Star Rating System, food labels are even more confusing. We outline what to look for. By Kirsten Braun

nutrition label on a box

Food labels can be confusing to understand and more often than not, we don’t spend the time trying to figure out what they mean and the way to use them. Reading the nutrition information panel is key. It offers the easiest way to identify a food’s energy (shown in kilojoules (kJ)), fat, protein, carbohydrate, sugar and salt (sodium) content.

Serve size

A food’s serve size is determined by the food manufacturer, which is why it varies from product to product. For some foods, the serve size on the package is not realistic, and in reality people consume significantly more than recommended. For example, a standard serve of cereal is 40 grams (g), which is around ¾ of a cup, however, most people aren’t likely to follow this recommendation, and consume more than the recommended amount.

Quantity per 100 g

This column is useful to compare products that are similar, with the numbers being the same as a percentage. For example, if a packet of potato chips contains 22.5 g fat per 100 g, the product is 22% fat. 

Fat 

Fat is indicated on a nutrition information panel as ‘total fat’ and ‘saturated fat’. For a food to be considered low fat, it is required to contain 3 g or less per 100 g. Saturated fats may be described in the ingredient list in many forms such as palm oil, copha or lard. The general rule for fat content is to choose foods that have 10 g per 100 g, or less. This varies for dairy foods such as milk or yoghurt, where it is best to choose items that contain 2 g per 100 g.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are found in most foods, and in the nutrition panel they include starch and sugar. Eating foods such as breads, cereals, pasta, fruit and vegetables increases carbohydrate consumption. We are encouraged to consume wholegrains, which are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some products advertised as containing wholegrains, however, also have a high amount of fat and salt, so it’s important to read the nutrition information panel.

Sugar

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and the amount listed on a nutrition panel includes natural sugars, such as in fruits, as well as added sugars. When choosing a product, it is recommended to avoid foods that contain more than 15 g per 100 g. If a food states that it has ‘no added sugar’, it may still contain natural sugars, or in some cases artificial sweeteners. Other forms of sugar to remember when reading the ingredients list are corn syrup, maltose, fruit juice concentrates, fructose, glucose and sucrose.

Dietary fibre

Fibre is the part of plants that can’t be properly digested, and it’s recommended to include it in our diets as it keeps our digestive system healthy. Fibre is found mostly in vegetables, fruits, grains and beans. Nutrition information panels are not required to include fibre, unless stated on the packaging that the product is ‘high in fibre’. An overall rule is to choose foods that contain 3 g of fibre or more per serve.

Salt

Salt or sodium is a common ingredient people are told to reduce in their diet as it can increase your risk of heart disease. Sodium content is required on all nutrition information panels. The general rule is that a product containing <400 milligrams (mg) per 100 g is a good choice, while <120 mg per 100 g is the best choice. Salt can also be contained in other foods without you knowing, such as baking powder, garlic salt, yeast extract or monosodium glutamate.

Health Star Rating System

Introduced in 2014, the Health Star Rating (HSR) system was designed to provide convenient, easy to understand information on food packaging in Australia and New Zealand. It provides a quick review of the ‘healthiness’ of the food, without feeling the need to read the nutrition information panel on the back. At the moment, it is a voluntary system, meaning that manufacturers can choose to use or not use this new system. Foods are given a star rating based on their energy, fat and sugar content.  For example, a popular breakfast choice is Weetbix, which has a HSR of 5 stars, meaning it’s an excellent choice. On the other end of the scale is Coco Pops, with a HSR of 2 stars, meaning it shouldn’t be a regular choice.

Quick tips for reading food labels and nutrition panels

  • Don’t be confused by the big claims on the packaging, just go straight to the nutrition information panel.

  • Check the ingredient list – legally, a food has to have the most prevalent ingredients listed first on a food label. If sugar or another form of sugar is listed first or second in the ingredients, it’s best to avoid it.

  • Choose products that have a shorter ingredient list, and include ingredients you actually recognise (and can pronounce!).

  • Be aware of hidden fats, sugars and salt in foods – they may be called a different name.

  • The ‘per serve’ column may not be a realistic representation of the amount you would consume.

Last updated: June 2017

©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Laura Phillips-Moyle and Sally Gaedtke (4th year Nutrition and Dietetic Students on placement at Women’s Health from the Sunshine Coast University) and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial commitee. It was published in Health Journey 2017 Issue 2.

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