How to read a Nutrition Label
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Confused about food labels? You’re not alone! It can be overwhelming at first glance, but hopefully this user guide will make things easier.
Just quickly, what are we talking about: Australia and New Zealand have regulatory food labelling laws that reinforce proper food labelling standards. This is to ensure we know WHAT is in the product, any allergens present, where the country of origin the product was manufactured and of course, it’s nutrition information (1).
Here are my top tips to breakdown what you’re looking at:
1. Try as much as possible to stick to whole, unprocessed foods. I know this article is about reading nutrition labels, however, I can’t emphasis how important it is to base your overall diet on natural unpackaged foods. These include fresh vegetables and fruit from local fresh produce stores, quality animal proteins such as red meat and chicken from your local butcher, as well as fish, seafood and eggs!
2. First things first, I would look at the ingredients list.
If there are words you can’t pronounce, have no idea what it is, or contains numbers.. best to steer clear and keep looking. Packaged foods with a long list of unrecognisable ingredients are likely to be nutrient poor, with excessive calories, refined sugars, artificial flavours and preservatives. Remember: the most natural ingredients the better!
Ingredients at the start of the list indicate the majority of its contribution and descends as less of it is used. For example, Image A's first ingredient is cream and lactic culture (lactic acid bacteria used for fermentation), is the final ingredient. So this butter is essentially just cream.
3. Next up, have a look at the Nutrition Information Panel.
Serving size and Quantity per Serving size: This is how much the manufacture foresees is an ideal serving size (But really, is this just an intake that provides the least amount of calories/fat/carbs on the packaging?...) For example, one Tim Tam weighs 18 grams with 397KJ/ 94 cal, 4.9g fat (2.8g sat/fat), 11.7g carbs, 8.2g sugar. Someone is more likely to have more than one biscuit, so multiple the values for how many biscuits. The sugars do add up fast!
Nonetheless, note the serving size you will realistically consume and multiple said nutrition values. If it’s the above product, will you stop at 25 grams??
Quantity per 100g: This is the nutrient values of 100 grams of this food. It’s a handy serving size when comparing similar products with the same weight, and to indicate what 100 grams would equate to.
a) Energy (calories/ kilojoules): I don’t focus on counting calories with my clients, however, when reading this section, it’s a good to know if it’s an excessive amount or not. As with Image B, it contains 123 calories per 25 grams. As mentioned before, who actually eats 25 grams?? Again, multiple by your actual intake. Processed foods can contain excessive calories that will add up quickly!
b) Protein: protein keep us feeling fuller for longer, takes more energy to break down and digest, and is integral for cellular and muscle health. You want this to be HIGH
c) Fat- Total: This is where the ingredient list is important. Depending on the type of fat/s used, this is subjective. If its quality olive oil, then this can be HIGH. For instance, tinned sardines in olive oil. Now consider the carbohydrate value; you want fat to be higher, and carbohydrates/ sugar to be lower .. nothing worse than a low fat yoghurt that’s laden with added sugar. Fat slows down the digestion of sugar in the blood. If for example a packet of chips.. then the fat used for cooking are likely to be inflammatory vegetable, canola or seed oils, these fats need to be limited in the diet. Consider how processed the food is, think meat pies and pastries... then it’s more likely to contain unhealthy trans-fat and oils.
d) Saturated fat: This type of fat has been shunned for decades where many people avoid or drastically reduce altogether. Current research has found that saturated fat isn’t associated with heart disease (1-3). Natural saturated fats can be included in a healthy diet such as butter, its what you’re teaming it with..
e) Carbohydrates: Doesn’t matter if the product states “no added sugar”, if its made from wheat, grains, oats, barley and others.. its still broken down into sugar in your blood stream. Ideally we want to this be LOW
f) Sugar: now of those carbohydrates above, this is the amount that is just sugar (sweetness) already in the product or added sugar. There is an abundance of sugar in so many packaged foods, and really, you don’t need constant spikes in your sugar levels. One of the most exhausting things, is being dependent on sugar fixes to get you through the day (I’ve been there before). Again we want this to be LOW
g) Dietary Fibre: yes this should be HIGH too, for the number two..
h) Sodium: Many packaged foods are loaded with sodium to increase self-life and to increase palatability. Our body needs sodium. It is an electrolyte required for hydration, blood pressure regulation, and for our cells to communicate via electric signals. Again, always ideal to obtain it through natural salt choices, however, if the value appears excessive on the panel, perhaps stay clear. Look for LOW as this is not the type of sodium you want to have.
On a final note, I wouldn’t recommend relying on the Heart Foundation’s Tick of Approval, the Health Start Rating or the that nutrition bar tagging along the Health Star Rating..
I’d give an example, Milo: the chocolate malt barley beverage many grew up drinking. BUT Milo contains 12.9 grams carbs, and of those, 9.3 grams is sugar per 20 gram serving. That’s a tablespoon. I don’t know about you, but I’m sure any Milo consumer would have at least 2-3 tablespoons. So with simple mathematics, multiple the sugars by 2-3 times.. yet it has a 4.5 Star rating. It is not a whole food, nor will it give someone sustained energy other than a sugar rush and drop.
Don’t be fooled by such ratings. Do your own investigating.
So there you go. I don’t recommend processed foods, but for those of you who are confused, I hope this guide will help you make informed decisions at your next shopping trip!
If you have any questions or would like further insight, get in touch!
Until next time,
~ Bonny C
1. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) 2001b. User guide to Food Labelling and Other Information Requirements. FSANZ, Canberra. 2. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010;91(3):502-9.
3. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2010:ajcn. 27725.
4. Astrup A, Dyerberg J, Elwood P, Hermansen K, Hu FB, Jakobsen MU, et al. The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010? The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2011;93(4):684-8.