We all know that the best place to shop in the supermarket is around the outer perimeter, where you’ll find fresh produce, meat, and fish. No need for labels there – fresh is best.
The inner aisles, however, hold more pre-packaged, processed foods, many of which have unwanted additives or high Kj counts. You can shop smarter by paying attention to food labels – and if that’s not something you’re used to, we’d like to share a few tips.
While food labels can carry lots of different information (regarding allergens, food storage etc), the main thing to look at is the Nutrition Information Panel.
It is to your definite advantage to learn how to use the information on this panel to help you make the best choices for your health.
This is an example of what a food label looks like:
The nutrition label helps you evaluate the energy, protein, salt and sugar and fat levels of the foods you buy. However, there are a few things to note on your label:
The label is divided into two columns: one represents information per serving, and the other one represents a 100 grams or 100 millilitres serving. This second column is the one to focus on to do a quick and simple check to determine the overall nutrient content (as a percentage) and to compare different types or brands of the same foods. If a food says it has 42 grams of fat per 100 grams, then quite simply it contains 42% fat.
What you’re looking to achieve is food that is high in protein and fibre, low in sugar, salt, cholesterol and carbohydrates, and moderate amounts of good fats.
The first thing the label lists is the energy it contains in either kilojoules, calories or both. These are just different ways of expressing the energy content of the food, so it doesn’t matter which one you use, so long as you’re comparing (processed) apples with apples.
If you are trying to lose weight, you should pay particular attention to the amount of fat, sugar and kilojoules on the nutrition label. Foods that are high in fat and sugar tend to be high in kilojoules.
It’s also important to look on the label for the amount of saturated fat, which is listed separately from total fat. This type of fat is particularly bad for your health, as is trans fat, which is not currently mandatory to appear on a label.
The amount of sodium tells you how much salt is in the food. Foods that are described as low in salt must have less than 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 g (or 100 mL for liquids). The salt content is especially important information for people with high blood pressure, because a low-salt diet is often recommended as part of the treatment for this condition.
The serving size column is a bit of an eye opener. You will find that the serving sizes recommended are often very small, certainly less than most people eat. So that packet of chips you consider a single serving could actually be equal to 12 servings! Bang.
Moreover, a lot of processed food delivers empty calories. If the recommended serving is small and not filling, but contains half of your recommended daily energy intake, you’re either going to be very hungry trying to stick to your daily limit – or else blowing your calorie budget trying to satisfy your hunger. A couple of minutes spent examining the nutrition label, will help you decide whether those Kj are worth it for a moment on the lips.
The other important information label to look at is the list of ingredients. The ingredients are listed by quantity, in descending order. So if you find sugar is the first, second or even third ingredient listed, put the packet down and make a better choice.
The amount of the key ingredient the ingredient usually mentioned in the name of the product, such as bananas in a banana slice, must be listed showing a percentage of how much of the product consists of that ingredient.
Natural or synthetic food additives must also be identified, using its name and a corresponding number. This allows you to see how much pure food is included versus additives (sometimes a scarily long list), and also so that people who are sensitive to additives can avoid them.
Any ingredient that is known to cause severe allergic reactions in some people, such as nuts, seafood, milk, eggs, and soybeans must also be shown on the label, even if there is only a very small amount of that ingredient in the product.
Food packaging may also display a symbol or stamp from an organisation to highlight particular nutritional information. According to Australian healthcare website, myDr, foods that have a Heart Foundation ‘tick’ on their label are healthier and generally lower in saturated fat and sodium than other foods in the same category. Foods displaying a ‘Glycemic Index (GI) Tested’ symbol on their packaging have been evaluated for their effects on blood sugar levels. Foods that have a low glycemic (or ‘glycemic’) index (GI) tend to raise your blood sugar levels less than medium or high-GI foods, and eating these low-GI foods can help control diabetes and may help with weight loss. All foods that display this symbol (whether they are low, medium or high GI) are generally a good nutritional choice for that food group.
The % Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount. Choose foods with a lower % DV if you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fat or sodium), or a higher % DV for nutrients you may want to increase, such as fibre. It is really important to note that the daily value is usually based on 2,000 calories a day – you may need to consume less than this depending on age, gender, activity level, and what your weight goals are, so make sure you take this into account.
Don’t be fooled by some of the labels, warns myDr. There are some descriptions that can be misleading, so you should always check that claims that are made about foods are backed up by the information in the nutrition panel:
‘Lite’ or ‘light’ – foods that are described as ‘light’ or ‘lite’ may not be light in kilojoules or fat, but instead light in taste, colour or texture. The characteristic that makes the food ‘light’ must be stated on the label.
Low-fat – Very low-fat foods must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat. Low-fat solid foods must contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 gram serve; low-fat liquid foods must contain less than 1.5 grams of fat per 100 mL. And remember, if a food claims to be 90 per cent fat-free, that food is actually 10 per cent fat.
‘No cholesterol’ or ‘low cholesterol’ – Only foods derived from animals contain cholesterol, so ‘no cholesterol’ or ‘low cholesterol’ claims on foods derived from plants are meaningless, because all plant foods contain virtually no cholesterol.