• “If you have high cholesterol focus on looking at the saturated fat content. If you have issues with your sugar intake, focus on the sugar content." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A 101 to understanding the nutritional panels and ingredients lists on our food labels.
By
Yasmin Noone

23 Jan 2018 - 1:18 PM  UPDATED 9 Apr 2019 - 12:23 PM

Knowledge is power. If you know what’s in your food, you can make better choices about what to eat and what to resist, right? Maybe – it’s complicated.

According to Accredited Practising Dietitian, Joel Feren, remembering to read food labels is only half the battle. The other half involves understanding how to interpret the nutritional information and ingredients list on each label, before you reach the supermarket checkout.

“There’s a lot of information on the nutritional information panel,” says Feren. “That’s why it’s really important to know what to look out for.”

“You only need to make sense of the nutritional information on food products that are your specific health needs at a specific time.”

So where do we start?

Food Standards, Australia New Zealand, outlines that every food label must show the percentage of the key or characterising ingredients or components in the food.

“This allows similar foods to be compared,” the authority advises.

Feren tells shoppers to look at the 100 gram or 100 millilitre column on a nutritional panel (not the serving size column as the size varies with each product) in order to compare like with like.

“The 100 gram or 100 millilitre columns allow us to make sense of what is in the product and compare the same weight of two similar products.”

A nutritional panel: What's it all mean?

Choose your nutritional measure

Our nutritional needs vary based on gender, age, activity and how well we are. So although there’s a lot of information in the nutritional panel, Feren says we don’t have to look at it all – just at the facts that matter to us.

“If you have blood pressure issues, focus on the salt (sodium) content on the label,” says Feren, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“If you have high cholesterol focus on looking at the saturated fat content. If you have issues with your sugar intake, focus on the sugar content.

“You only need to make sense of the nutritional information on food products that are your specific health needs at a specific time.”

Feren advises shoppers to ignore the ‘energy’ listing on the nutritional panel. That’s because it combines the carbohydrate, fat and protein content of each product and is not in and of itself a single measure.

Instead, he says, direct your focus to the saturated fat, sugar, sodium (salt) or carbohydrate content listings in of a product.

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Know your numbers

Here are a few rules of thumb, based on nutritional guidelines that are important to be aware of when trying to buy healthy food products.

-Aim for your food to contain under 10 per cent fat.

Note, under five per cent fat is best unless the product contains ingredients with high amounts of healthy heart fats, like nuts or avocado. 

-The saturated fat content of healthy food should be capped at two per cent or under (two grams per 100 grams) to keep our cholesterol levels at bay.

-Sugar: “We want the sugar content to be under 15 grams for every 100 gram serve," says Feren.

If the sugars in the specific food product derive from natural sources, like fruit, then a little bit higher is fine but not if the sugar are refined alternatives.

-Carbohydrates: The type of carbohydrates in the food product you are considering will determine how much you should have (for example, wholegrains are much better than refined grains). But generally, aim for 7.5 grams of carbs per 100 grams.

-Sodium: Go for products with 120 micrograms or less per 100 grams of food. “With salt less is always more” so the lower the sodium content of a food product, the better.

“So if an ingredient is listed near the start of the list, then the food contains more of this ingredient than others lower down the list”.

Examine the ingredient list

The ingredient list of a food product is just as important as the nutritional panel, even though it is often overlooked. Why? Sometimes it is not so much about how much you eat of an ingredient but what the ingredient is, where it comes from and how it was processed.

“Ingredients must be listed in descending order (by ingoing weight),” state the Food Standards, Australia New Zealand online. “So if an ingredient is listed near the start of the list, then the food contains more of this ingredient than others lower down the list”.

Be careful of other words for sugar – corn syrup, honey, sorbitol, fructose and glucose – as these are all mean ‘refined sugar’.

Low in sugar v low in fat

The marketing promises about the low sugar or fat content of a food product can be misleading. “For example, a bag of lollies may say they are 99.9 per cent fat free but that’s because they have 99.9 per cent sugar in them. So even though they are low in fat, it’s not a good thing for us.”

Lite is another word marketers use to convince shoppers that food products are healthy but it often means ‘light in taste’ or ‘light in colour’ not light in fat or sugar.

As Feren says: "knowledge is power and having the wherewithal to make better and more food choices can lead to better health outcomes for us all”. 

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