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Reading food labels
Trying to understand food labels can be pretty daunting. It’s easy to feel
overwhelmed by all the information you see on packets, jars and cans in the
supermarket. Thankfully, there are a few key pieces of information that can help you
to quickly make healthy and informed choices.
Nutrition content claims – what’s allowed?
The first thing to remember is that food manufacturers want you to buy their
products. They invest huge amounts of time and money in marketing their brands. A
“fat free” product may have no fat, but be packed with sugar to make it more enticing
to eat. A “sugar-free” product may not be that sweet, but be packed with fats to boost
the flavour.
Jean Hailes dietitian Anna Waldron advises caution around these types of claims on
labels. “It’s easy to be tricked into thinking a food product is healthy when it isn't,”
says Anna. “It’s a good idea to also check the ingredients list and nutrition
information panel to see what’s in the product. The saturated fat, fibre, sugar and
sodium content can all be important to consider. Some people with special dietary
considerations may need to look for other information on the label too.”
There are regulations (Food Standards Code) in Australia that cover all aspects of
the sale of food including the labelling of food products. Claims can only be made if
the product meets certain criteria.
Nutrition content claims – what they really mean
Fat free – the product must contain less than 0.15% fat
Low fat – must contain less than 3% fat for a solid food or 1.5% for liquids
Reduced salt or reduced fat – this must have at least a 25% reduction
compared to the original product
Good source of iron/calcium/protein claims – these must contain no less than
25% of the daily recommended intake (RDI) of the listed mineral or vitamin in
a serve
No added sugar – a product stating no added sugar may still have a high
sugar content from natural sources of sugar such as fruit
Cholesterol free or no cholesterol – dietary cholesterol is mostly found in
animal products such as prawns, meat and eggs. This claim means nothing in
a plant-based product, as plant foods contain virtually zero cholesterol
anyway. A cholesterol-free product may be high in saturated fat which
contributes to increasing our blood cholesterol level. It is more important to
check the saturated fat content if you are trying to lower your cholesterol
While food packaging is designed to make the product appear more enticing, the
nutritional contents and ingredients list is what really matters.
Nutritional information panel
The nutritional information panel is found on most packaged foods and gives you the
exact quantity of nutrients including the energy content in kilojoules, protein, total and
saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium. There are often two columns of
numbers – quantity per serving and quantity per 100g (or 100ml). When you are
comparing products it is easier to use the quantity per 100g column as serving sizes
may differ between products.
To help you try to choose the healthiest options, look out for the recommended
nutrient levels listed below. These are just general guidelines and there are
exceptions to these rules with certain foods.
Saturated fat – aim for less than 3g per 100g (exceptions may include
cheese, seeds, nuts, oils and margarines)
Total fat – aim for less than 10g per 100g (exceptions may include nuts, fish,
seeds and other sources of healthy fats)
Sugar – aim for less than 15g per 100g
Sodium – aim for 120mg or less per 100g serving (for a low-sodium diet)
The ingredients list
Ingredients are listed in descending order. This means the first ingredient listed is the
one with the largest quantity in the product, while the one with the smallest quantity is
listed last. If sugar is listed near the start of the list, you can be sure that the product
contains a high proportion of sugar.
Health star rating
Australia’s health star rating (HSR) helps you to make healthier choices when buying
packaged foods. Launched in July 2015, the HSR system aims to take the
guesswork out of deciding how healthy (or not) a product is. The healthier a food is,
the higher the star rating, with numbers ranging from ½ star for less healthy to five
stars for the healthiest choices. The HSR is displayed on the front of packaged
foods, to give an at-a-glance summary of the nutritional profile. However, the HSR is
a voluntary system, so unfortunately not all food manufacturers have adopted it.
On the HSR label, the nutrient content such as energy, saturated fats, sugars and
sodium may also be shown. The label may also highlight one positive nutrient such
as protein, fibre or certain vitamins and minerals. The HSR can make it easier to
quickly compare two similar products, for example breakfast cereals. They may
appear to be fairly similar but the HSR of one could have a rating of three, while the
other could have a rating of five, indicating the healthier option, without having to
read the nutritional information panel.
“Eating well for your health isn't meant to be complicated,” says Anna. “Remember,
the foods without labels, such as fruit and vegetables and non-packaged foods, are
often some of the better choices to make.”
Learn more about good nutrition and healthy food choices on the Jean Hailes
Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women's Health
1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)