Making sense of food labels

Kara Vogt

Making sense of food labels

Written by
Kara Vogt

Making sense of food labels

With such a huge proportion of the food on our supermarket shelves being packaged, making sense of food labels is a worthwhile skill to master to help you choose healthier options. When comparing two of the same products (different brands for example) understanding the labels can help you choose foods that are lower in energy (kilojoules/calories), lower in saturated fats, lower in salt,lower in sugar, and higher in fibre.

There are two important parts of food labels to pay attention to: the ingredients list and the nutrition information panel.

Ingredients list

Ingredients are listed from most to least by weight. Therefore if sugar, fat or salt is listed as one of the top 3 ingredients, then the product is unlikely to be a healthy choice. It’s important to note that sugar, fat and salt can go by many other names too (see below)!

Sugar: dextrose, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, honey, agave nectar, raw sugar, brown sugar, organic sugar, molasses, barley malt, rice malt syrup, concentrated fruit juice, maltose, maltodextrin.

Fat: vegetable oil, shortening, cream, butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, hydrogenated oil, milk fat, milk solids, full cream milk powder, margarine, palm oil.

Salt: sodium, celery salt, garlic salt, sodium bicarbonate, mineral salt, rock salt, glutamate, flavour enhancer 621 (MSG)

Nutrition Information Panel

The nutrition information panel contains two columns, one is the amount of nutrients per serve, and the other is per 100g. When comparing two products, it’s important to always look at the per 100g column so that you are ‘comparing apples with apples’. You can use this information to find the option that may be lower in kilojoules or lower in salt for example.

The serving size is an amount of the food determined by the product manufacturer, and may not be the amount you consume. The amount will also be different for each product, so it’s much more difficult to compare products using this information.

To achieve and maintain a healthy diet it’s important to always try to choose foods that are closest to their natural state – this means choosing foods with the shortest ingredients list that are the least processed, or better still, choose fresh foods that come in no packaging at all.