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How to read food labels?How to read food labels? What a good question! I always found food labels overwhelming until I learnt what I should really look at. So here I am sharing my experience on how to read food labels? But first, let is be honest, the best is to buy food with no labels like fresh fruit, veggies, seafood, eggs, meat and make your own meals when you can. This way you are guaranteed to be making a good choice and eating foods with wholesome ingredients. However around 80 per cent of our intake is from processed foods, so learn to read the labels and compare products.

Check the ingredients list

The first thing to look at when reading a food label is the ingredients list. The ingredients are the best indicator to know if the food is a good healthy choice or not. In most countries – New Zealand, Australia, USA and Canada – ingredients on a food label must be listed in order of importance from the greatest to the smallest proportion.

As a general rule if sugar is listed as one of the first three ingredients it is fairly safe to assume that the product has a high sugar content. Always choose the product with the least ingredients and ingredients that you can recognize – the ones you can read and pronounce.

real food definition Also look for key words that indicate minimal or simple processing like:

minimal processed food

Also keep in mind that sugar may not simply be listed as sugar on the ingredients list.

Other ingredient names that contains sugar are

sugar name

Food Additives & preservatives

There are nearly 400 different additives in our food and most of us know people who cannot tolerate them.  In Australia and New Zealand additives are labeled on products using code numbers that allow you to identify them. Always choose products with as few additives and preservatives as possible.

Example of types of food additives and their functions

food additive table

Others common additives are anti caking agent – to prevent clumping – or humectants – to prevent food from drying.

Look at the nutritional label

After you have checked the ingredients list then take a look at the nutritional label. Avoid looking at the serving size on a food label. The definition of the serving size is at the discretion of the manufacturer and often a smaller serving size is used as a means to make a food seem healthier than it is.

Example: nutrition panel from a pasta packaging found in a local New Zealand supermarket

how to read food label

What’s a healthy food label?

healthy food labels choice pikto

Carbohydrates

The most important thing to look at is the carbohydrate and sugar content.

As an indicator, note that products with less than 10g sugar per 100g can be considered as low sugar products. Also note that labels that say fat-free usually mean that the fat has been replaced by sugar or other things that you also don’t need.

Look also at the fibre amount. Fibres are non-digestible carbohydrates and soluble fibre traps nutrients and delays their exit from the stomach. It helps you feel full for longer. The more fibre in a product the better.

Example: nutrition panel from a pasta packaging found in a local New Zealand supermarket

what is carbs

The figures for total carbohydrates and the figures for sugars doesn’t differentiate between added and natural sugars. So if a product has a high sugar content but the ingredient list does not contain fruit or milk it is likely to be a high sugar added product. Note that when a yoghurt contains honey, apple juice or similar it is to sweeten the product without the use of sugar making the product look healthier. It does not mean that the quantity used is small and therefore the total sugar content can be high.

No added sugar means that no sugars have been added during the manufacturing process but it does not mean it is sugar-free. For example fruit, milk and honey can be present in the product.

  • Low sugar product: less than 10 grams per 100 g
  • High fibre product: more than 5 grams per 100 g

 Fat

The second section to look at is fat. Fat intake is a controversial topic. Many ‘low carb’ diets claim that fat should not be watched when we look at our carbohydrate intake. Keep in mind that even if fat does not raise blood sugar levels increasing your intake of the ‘bad’ fat could lead to other health problems such as high cholesterol, heart disease.

 What you are looking for is product high in ‘good fat’, the polyunsaturated and monosaturated fat. They are the ones often referred as good for your health because they lower ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). Monounsaturated fat is the one present in a Mediterranean diet and also increases the ‘good’ cholesterol ‘HDL’

Saturated Fat

The saturated fats and trans-fats are often pointed out as the ‘bad’ fats as they tend to increase your LDL cholesterol. Trans-fats are not mentioned on labels and recent studies pointed them as even more harmful than saturated fat. Our daily saturated fat intake should be no more than 10 % of our daily energy intake.

So always go for a product low in saturated fat – less than 3 g per 100 g – and high in monounsaturated fat.

  • Low saturated fat product less than 3 g per 100 g
  • Daily energy intake should be no more than 20-35% from fat

Sodium

Higher intakes of sodium are strongly linked to higher blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease. We are advised to have no more than 2300 mg sodium each day – about 5.5 g of table salt – but less than that is better for our health.

Do not be confused between sodium and salt. One gram of table salt in your kitchen represents 400 mg of sodium.

  • Low sodium product: less than 120 mg per 100g
  • No more than 2300 mg of sodium per day
  • 1 g of table salt equal 400 mg of sodium

Calcium

Calcium is essential for bone growth and bone health throughout life. Most adults need 1000mg every day, but women 50+ years and men 70+ years need 1300mg each day. Dairy is the richest source of calcium but if you can’t have dairy in your diet, look for alternatives like almonds, broccoli, legumes, tofu and sardines.

Most adults need 1000 mg of calcium per day

  • Dairy is not the only source of calcium: almonds, legumes, tofu, vegetables are also a good source of calcium

Example of high calcium non-dairy food:

  • ¼ cup of almonds contains as much calcium as 1/3 cup of milk – 100 mg of calcium
  • 100 g tofu contains as much as ½ cup of milk – 200 mg of calcium

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