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Understanding food labels

The little table on the back of most packaged products is a cause for confusion for many of us.

Sure, this nutrition panel tells us the amount of protein, fat, fibre and sugar in the food we eat, but how do we really know what these numbers mean? What is ‘low fat’, low sugar’ or ‘high fibre’???

 

I’m here to help give these numbers some meaning, so you can use them to make food choices that you are confident about. Knowledge is power, so let’s get into it!

Firstly, don’t look at the serving size column

The serving size is determined by the manufacturer, so it will vary significantly between products, making it very difficult to compare them.

The ‘per 100g’ column is your friend. This gives you an even playing field to determine what the product is made up of.

 

Let's talk about energy

The first row in the table is usually energy, which is expressed as kilojoules or calories. We generally use kilojoules in Australia, and the average kilojoules required per day is approximately 8700kJ.

Now, it is very important to remember that this number will vary significantly from person to person, depending on age, size, activity levels etc. It can be a useful guide, but please remember that it is by no means your ‘golden number’ for daily energy intake.

If you break down the kilojoules per meal/snack, a VERY rough guide would be around 2000-2500kJ per meal (assuming you’re eating 3 meals per day), and around 500-800kJ per snack (assuming you have 2 snacks per day). Again, these numbers will vary a lot depending on how often you eat, and your lifestyle in general, so keep this in mind when looking at kilojoules.

The most important thing to remember is that the food you eat is not determined by the total kilojoules it contains, but rather the QUALITY of the food in that meal.

 

When looking at Nutrients

If we move onto the other nutrients in our nutrition information tables, you’ll often find an over whelming number of nutrients listed.

In general, the nutrients that we want to see less of include sodium, saturated fat and added sugar.

For sugar, you can aim for products with less than 15g sugar per 100g. Sugar absolutely doesn’ t have to be avoided completely, like everything else, it’s absolutely fine in smaller amounts. It is important to remember that fresh and dried fruit will contain natural sugar, which is totally different to added or refined sugars.

 

What fat to look out for

When looking at fat, generally look for products with less than 10g total fat per 100g.

However, saturated fat is the one you really need to look at, as many products can have high levels of healthy fats, which can be very beneficial for our health. Always chose products with the lowest saturated fat. Less than 3g saturated fat per100g is best.

Try to limit your Sodium

Sodium is another nutrient that we want to limit as it can contribute to high blood pressure and other negative health outcomes. Foods with less than 400mg sodium per 100g are good, and less than 120mg per 100g are best.

 

Lately, fibre is your friend!

We should aim for25-30g fibre per day to achieve optimal digestive health. This is the only nutrient that I’d recommend looking at the ‘per serve’ column. Products with more than 3g fibre per serve are generally pretty good sources. But be aware, not all nutrition panels have fibre included as it is not compulsory. So, if there is no fibre mentioned on the panel, assume that the product does not contain much fibre!

 

Something easy to remember

Finally, the beauty of all this information is that often the foods that do not come in packets(fruits, & vegetables) meet all the above-mentioned nutrition guidelines.

Fruits and vegetables have plenty of fibre, low sodium, low saturated fat, sugar and kilojoules! Nature is so clever!

Hopefully this quick rundown has helped you make sense of nutrition information panels a bit more.

Although they can be confusing, the best advice is to minimise the amount of packaged food you consume all together, and focus on fresh, healthy, natural food that you KNOW is good for you, without looking on any labels!

 

 

Written By Esther Rijk, Dietitian
Do you want to know more? Contact Esther at rijkesther@gmail.com