How to Understand and Read Labels
May 15, 2017
When I was a little girl, I used to go food shopping with my mum. The boys hated it – they said it took too long. It was true, it often felt like we were in the supermarket for two hours, mainly because my mum would read everything. As I got older, it got even more annoying. I used to tell my mother to just put the item in the trolley and hurry up!
Fast-forward many years later, and I am that person, reading the label on everything before I put it in the trolley. There is a good reason to read labels before you buy – with our lack of advertising laws in Australia, you definitely can’t believe everything that a manufacturer claims about their product on the pack.
So what’s on the label?
Food labels are important for people to be able to make healthy food choices. All the packaged food you buy must display a nutrition label. The label tells you what is in an item, both in terms of the raw ingredients and their nutritional value. The label will also tell you how many serves are in the packet, and what each serving size is. Remember that food labels are in serving sizes for adults, not children.
Labels on most packaged foods must meet strict requirements that include providing information for people with food allergies, food additive listings and food storage instructions.
Pay attention to the order of ingredients
All ingredients on a food product must be listed in order. The first three ingredients are the most important because they tell you what the food product has in the largest proportions.
If you’re looking at the servings per package and you want to compare nutrients in similar food products, use the per 100g column. You should use the per serve column when calculating how much of a nutrient the serve includes, or how many kilojoules you will actually eat.
Ingredients to be aware of
Ingredients to look out for that are high in saturated fat include animal fat/oil, beef fat, butter, chocolate, milk/cream, copha, ghee, dripping, lard, suet, palm oil, sour cream and vegetable shortening.
Be careful when looking up added sugar, because it could be listed under other names like dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, maple syrup, raw sugar, agave, or stevia.
Ingredient lists do not need to list fibre.
When looking at the sodium panel, foods with less than 400mg per 100g are good, and less than 120mg per 100g is best.
Health and safety information on packaging
A ‘best before’ label will be on the packet for food with a shelf life of less than two years. A ‘use by date’ label will be on a packet of food if a food must be consumed before a certain date for health and safety reasons.
Labels also have to highlight any allergens (like peanuts) that are present in the food, even if there could just be a trace of it due to the item being manufactured in the same factory as other peanut-based products.
Information versus manufacturer claims
Food manufacturers are legally required to list the name of the food, name of the manufacturer, nutritional information, list of ingredients and percentage of the ingredients in their products.
The company may also make other claims on the packaging. But just because a company might say that their product is healthy, it doesn’t always mean it is – the only way to know for sure is to read the nutritional information panel.
This offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre.
Have a look at the label below to help you understand each section on the nutritional panel: