Have you ever looked at a nutrition label and questioned what you were reading? You’re not alone.
Reading and understanding nutrition labels can be overwhelming. Should we look at fat, sugar, or energy? What about the health star? The health claims? And what on earth is maltodextrin? Learning to crack the nutrition label code isn’t an easy task, so it’s no wonder that many people choose to ignore it and throw things into the trolley without a second look.
We all know that the most nutritious foods come as a whole (fresh fruit, veg, eggs), but it’s ‘healthy’ packaged foods with misleading or confusing labels that are the problem. Yoghurt, muesli bars, fruit juice, vegetable chips, and crackers are just a few examples of foods that are often deemed (and labelled) as healthy but are often loaded with not-so-healthy ingredients.
To progress from amateur to a professional nutrition-label interpreter, we’ve put together five tips to get you there!
If you only read one label on the packet, make it the ingredient list. By law, ingredients must be listed in order of quantity by weight, from highest to lowest – aka the first ingredient is what there’s the most of. Food companies also have to list the percentage of an ingredient that gives the food its character. For example, the ingredients list on almond milk must state the percentage of almonds (usually 2-10%) or the quantity of actual 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.
Additives are components added to foods to help with freshness, enhance colour, texture, and flavour.
Additives deemed safe for human consumption are assigned numbers, some are foods you’d even recognise. Turmeric, which is often used to colour foods, is represented by the number 100, whereas sucralose (an artificial sweetener) is 955 and MSG is 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 below for a list of common additives:
Number | Additive | Function
Image source: Choice
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.
The calculation behind the health star is based on four key components; energy, sugar, sodium and saturated fat – all of which have been identified as ‘risk’ nutrients, linked to obesity and diet-related chronic disease. Products can also receive 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 instead of 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 outer edges of the supermarket and avoiding the middle aisles will make sure your trolley is full of whole foods.
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. Cast your eyes over this section, but don’t obsess over the numbers.
Nutrition Information Panels (NIP) include the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and sugars) and some micronutrients such as sodium. NIPs must show:
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:
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.
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’ and ‘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).
Claim | Criteria
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’.
Sophie Scott is passionate about nutrition, fitness and behaviour change coaching. As a Registered Nutritionist and Environmental Scientist, she takes a wholistic approach to nutrition, focusing on people’s relationship with food and driving a shift to a healthier approach to eating.
With more than 12 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry, Sophie has supported hundreds of women along their health journey through her business, fitandfed.
Sophie is an enthusiastic nutrition teacher and accomplished course creator at Endeavour College of Natural Health, inspiring the next wave of nutrition and wellness professionals.
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