Your guide to understanding nutrition labels: How to read the back of your packaged food

With claims plastered all over products, reading food and nutrition labels can feel like a minefield sometimes. 

But if you can find out what they mean, they can be very useful in making healthier choices when buying packaged food.

While food labels can carry many different types of information, the main thing to look at when choosing healthy food is the Nutrition Information Panel. 

This offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules and more fibre. 

With claims plastered all over products, reading food and nutrition labels can feel like a minefield sometimes, but they can be helpful (stock image)

With claims plastered all over products, reading food and nutrition labels can feel like a minefield sometimes, but they can be helpful (stock image)

With claims plastered all over products, reading food and nutrition labels can feel like a minefield sometimes, but they can be helpful (stock image)

THE NUTRITION PANEL 

Serving size 

When reading the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), pay close attention to the serving size, the number of serves per package and a breakdown of nutrients in the product. 

The per 100g column comes in handy here when you are comparing the nutrients between products, as serving sizes are simply declared by the manufacturer and can vary from product to product. 

Energy

The second thing to take into account on the NIP is energy, which is measured in either kilojoules (kJ) or calories.

The NDSS reports that the amount of energy each of us needs depends on many factors and will vary from person to person. 

You should limit your intake of discretionary or junk foods – i.e. those that have more than 600kJ per serve. 

While carbs are not bad for you, you should keep an eye on them because the words 'total carbohydrate' includes both the sugars and the starches in food (stock image)

While carbs are not bad for you, you should keep an eye on them because the words 'total carbohydrate' includes both the sugars and the starches in food (stock image)

While carbs are not bad for you, you should keep an eye on them because the words ‘total carbohydrate’ includes both the sugars and the starches in food (stock image)

Fat

If you are looking to make a healthy and nutritious food decision, it’s vital you look at the amount of fat a product has. 

How much fat?

* Aim for less than 10g per 100g with the total fat.

* With milk and yoghurt, look for less than 2g per 100g, and with cheese, opt for those with less than 15g per 100g.

* Saturated fat should be limited to less than 3g per 100g. 

‘”Total fat” includes all polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats in the food. It’s important to consider both the amount and the type of fat,’ the NDSS reports.

With the total fat amount, Eat For Health recommends you should aim for less than 10g per 100g. 

With milk and yoghurt, look for less than 2g per 100g, and with cheese, opt for those with less than 15g per 100g.

Saturated fat is the worst type of all, and should be limited to less than 3g per 100g.

What are the other words food labels often use for sugar?

* Dextrose

*Fructose

* Glucose

* Golden/maple syrup

*Honey

* Maple syrup

*Sucrose

* Malt

*Maltose,

* Lactose

* Brown/caster/raw sugar 

Carbohydrates

While carbs are not bad for you, you should keep an eye on them because the words ‘total carbohydrate’ includes both the sugars and the starches in food.

The ‘sugars’ amount tells you how much of the total carbohydrate is made up of sugars. 

It includes both added sugars and natural sugars such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit. 

Keep these down to stay healthy and if you want a quick way of identifying how much of your food is sugar, check the ingredients list.

If sugar or one of the other words for sugar like stevia, fructose, glucose, syrup or honey are one of the first to be listed, you know you’re in trouble.

Sodium

How much salt?

* Choose products with under 120mg per 100g.

Sodium is one of the most important things to look at on the NIP.

Where possible, choose products with ‘reduced’ or ‘no added’ salt.

Alternatively, choose products with under 120mg per 100g.

THE INGREDIENTS LIST

If you want to quickly see what a product has in it, check the ingredients list – which must see all ingredients be listed in descending order by weight.

If sugar or fat or one of their ‘other names’ are towards the top of the list, chances are the packaged food isn’t that good for you.  

As a general rule of thumb, opt for products with whole, natural ingredients and try to pick packaged foods with small lists. 

THE CLAIMS

Food manufacturers often use nutrition claims on their packaging to attract the shopper’s attention.

While the claim may be true, it may also be misleading – so it’s useful to know the meaning of nutrition claims. 

Reduced salt

The label ‘reduced salt’ might have you reaching for the item and placing it in your shopping trolley, but you shouldn’t be quite so fast without consulting the label.

Reduced salt merely means the product contains at least 25 per cent less salt than the regular product.

However, the reduced salt version may still have a high salt content. 

Light or lite 

You might see these words and assume they refer to a reduced fat content.

But this can also be used to describe taste, texture or colour in a food item.

For example, light olive oil is lighter in colour and taste, but not lower in fat. 

You might see the words light or lite and assume they refer to a reduced fat content, but they can also be used to describe taste, texture or colour in a food item (stock image)

You might see the words light or lite and assume they refer to a reduced fat content, but they can also be used to describe taste, texture or colour in a food item (stock image)

You might see the words light or lite and assume they refer to a reduced fat content, but they can also be used to describe taste, texture or colour in a food item (stock image)

No added sugar

This means the product contains no added sugars, like sucrose, honey or glucose.

But the item may still contain natural sugars, like milk (lactose), fruit (fructose) or other carbohydrates, which can all affect your blood glucose levels.  

Reduced fat

Like a reduced salt label, a reduced fat tag does mean the product contains at least 25 per cent less fat than the regular product.

However, this doesn’t mean it’s low in fat.  

HEALTH STAR RATING SYSTEM

The last thing to take a look at is the Health Star Rating System, which is designed to help you choose healthier foods at a glance.

Packaged foods are rated at between a half and 5 stars. 

The rating is calculated according to ingredients that increase the risk of obesity and contribute to other chronic diseases. The more stars, the healthier the product.