How to read nutrition labels

28 January 2021 Sophie Scott
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Taste and price typically drive our food purchases. But what about the health factor? And how do we even work that out?

One way is to read the labels. This can be tricky – should we look at the fat, the sugar, or the energy? What about health claims, the health star rating, or the ingredients list?

No wonder most of us simply buy the same things over and over to avoid spending hours in the supermarket deciphering labels.

We know we should mainly buy fresh food without packages and labels like veggies and fruit, but, we all eat some processed and packaged food daily. And many healthy foods are packaged, like yoghurt, beans, and oats.

Food labels are meant to help us make more informed food choices but are often confusing.

Try our five strategies to become a label reading guru:

#1 The most important label is the ingredients list

If you only read one label on the packet, make it this one. Ingredients must be listed by law in order of quantity by weight from highest to lowest. So, the first ingredient is the most prominent. Food companies must also list the percentage of the ingredient that gives the food its character. For example, the ingredients list on almond milk must state the percentage of almonds (usually 2-10 percent) or strawberries in strawberry yoghurt.

The fewer the ingredients, the better. Check the first three ingredients – they make up most of what you’re eating. If they include refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils, leave them on the shelf.

#2 Look for additives

Additives are components added to foods to assist with freshness, enhancing colour, texture, and flavour.

Additives deemed safe for human consumption are allocated numbers. Some are foods you would recognise. Turmeric which is often used to colour foods is represented by the number 100, whereas sucralose (an artificial sweetener) is 955 and MSG, 621.

We don’t need to avoid all additives. Some, like preservatives, can play an important role in stopping microbes from multiplying and spoiling food.

A good rule of thumb is to choose foods with the least number of additives. See the table below for a list of common additives.

Number Additive Function
E100 Curcumin Colour
E150 Caramel Colour
E300 Ascorbic acid Antioxidant
E110 Sunset yellow Colour
E160 Beta-carotene Colour
E621 Monosodium glutamate Flavour enhancer
E905 Paraffin Glazing agent
E951 Aspartame Artificial sweetener
E955 Sucralose Artificial sweetener
E960 Steviol glycoside Sweetener

Image source: Choice

#3 Be smart when using the Health Star Rating

The Health Star Rating is a voluntary rating designed to give us an easy way to compare similar products, such as cereals, to find a healthier option. Processed and packaged products are assigned a star value from ½ star to 5 stars. The theory is that the more stars, the healthier the product is.

The calculation behind the health star is based on four key components; energy, sugar, sodium and saturated fat which have been identified as “risk” nutrients, linked to obesity and diet-related chronic disease. Products can also be given bonus points for adding “positive” nutrients such as protein, fibre, fruits and vegetables.

The key with the Health Star Rating is to compare within the same category. Compare Fruit Loops (2 stars) to Oats (5 stars).

There have been many criticisms of this system as it focuses on nutrients not the ‘wholeness’ of the food, and some junk foods seem to get higher ratings than whole foods.

Our advice? Use the stars with caution. Just because a low-fat strawberry yoghurt with no sugar gets four stars, doesn’t mean it’s a better option than a plain Greek Yoghurt with 1.5 stars. Shopping around the perimeter of the supermarket and avoiding those middle aisles will make sure your trolley is chockas with whole foods.

Still curious about how foods get ranked? Check out our previous post on Australian Dietary Guidelines.

#4 Gloss over the Nutrition Information Panel

This is the panel with all the numbers and grams of nutrients and it can be hard to know what to look for on this one. So do a gloss over, but don’t obsess with these numbers.

Nutrition Information Panels (NIP) include the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and sugars) and some micronutrients such as sodium. NIPs must show:

  • Energy in kilojoules (kJ), and sometimes calories (cal)
  • Protein in grams (g)
  • Total fat in grams (g)
  • Saturated fat in grams (g)
  • Total carbohydrates in grams (g)
  • Sugar in grams (g)
  • Sodium (salt) in milligrams (mg)
  • If applicable, any other micronutrient content such as Calcium, or Vitamin B

Source: Ski Yoghurt

This label from Ski Yoghurt shows 13.5 g of sugar per serve (the equivalent of three tsp of sugar).

Key things to look out for:

  • Low-sugar products have < 5g sugar per 100g
  • A snack should be approx. 400kJ per serve
  • A good source of fibre is >4g per serve

#5 Be wary of health claims

Claims like “Low-fat” and “Good source of protein” are examples of nutrient content claims. They are voluntary statements found on packaging labels or in advertising.

Claims can be either:

Nutrient content claims, e.g. “Low fat”
General level health claims e.g. “Protein contributes to the growth of muscle mass”
High-level health claims e.g. “Diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people 65 years and over.”

Companies must adhere to strict criteria around permissible language surrounding claims. However, just because a product has a health claim does not mean it’s healthy. We’ve seen jelly snakes labelled as “low fat” on the packet” or “low sugar” beer. Although technically correct, what is missing is the “high sugar” label on the snakes and the fact that most beer is low in sugar (the yeast ferments the sugar in the brewing process, so there’s very little left).

Nutrient content claims must meet the following criteria:

Claim Criteria
Low fat Must contain <3g of fat per 100g of food
Low in cholesterol Must contain <20mg cholesterol per 100g
Good source of fibre Must contain >4g of fibre per serving
Good source of protein Must contain >10g protein per 100g
Low salt Must contain <120mg/100g of food
Low sugar The food contains no more sugars than

(a) 2.5g/100mL for liquid food; or

(b) 5g/100g for solid food

FSANZ, Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Schedule 4 – Nutrition, health, and related claims

Also, be wary of fake health labels like ‘natural’ ‘fruit flavoured’ or ‘light’.

In summary:

  1. Read the ingredients panel first
  2. Go for foods with minimal additives
  3. Use the Health Star Rating with caution
  4. Don’t focus on the Nutrition Information Panel
  5. Be wary of health claims

Thinking about learning more about Nutrition Coaching? Check out our popular fully online Nutrition Coach course.

Sophie Scott

Senior Trainer/Assessor – Nutrition and Dietetics

Sophie is passionate about nutrition, fitness and behaviour change coaching. As a Registered Nutritionist, Sophie takes a wholistic approach to nutrition, focusing on people’s relationship with food, driving a shift to a healthier approach to eating.

Sophie has worked as Personal Trainer and Group Ex Instructor for many years. She has taught a range of group fitness classes from yoga and pilates to Zumba™ and bootcamp. She started teaching at a gym in Vanuatu, then moved to Wellington, New Zealand to launch her own business, fitandfed, focusing on women’s health and fitness, before moving back home to Australia.

Now the Head Trainer – Nutrition at FIAFitnation, Sophie inspires the next wave of fitness professionals and nutrition coaches.

She has extensive experience in the education field, initially working in the area of environmental education, assisting people green up their lives, before moving into the health and fitness industry. Sophie has also presented and written scripts for a number of media outlets including the Eco Reno series on Channel 7’s Sunrise program.

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