Read Nutrition Labels Like an Expert in Three Easy Steps
Finding genuinely healthy, tasty items on the supermarket shelf is a challenge – especially when they’re hidden amongst ridiculous superfoods, over-the-top marketing claims and money-wasting “health” food products. No wonder we all hate doing the grocery shopping!
Interpreting nutrition information panels is a helpful skill to have, considering the vast amount of misleading marketing on seemingly healthy food products. Many marketing claims can easily disguise products that may not be as beneficial as they promise.
But sometimes, reading nutrition labels has us literally feeling like lost children in a supermarket. Although simple in theory, reading nutrition labels can be quite difficult without a method to compare products, draw conclusions and make judgements against health food claims.
If you’re keen to identify food products that meet your health goals (and if you find the idea of outsmarting the food industry extremely satisfying), read on to find my foolproof guide that breaks down label reading into three easy steps.
1. STEP ONE: INSPECT THE INGREDIENTS LIST
Let’s have a look what’s actually in the product we’re choosing. This naturally applies more to mixed/processed products – probably no need to peruse the ingredients label of a deli chicken breast, or packet of pasta. Most of the time, a shorter ingredients list is more desirable as the product will usually pack more whole foods and nutrients, and will have a lower composition of “non-essentials” such as flavours and sweeteners.
Not everyone knows this, but the ingredients are listed on the ingredients list in order of their weight/predominance. For longer ingredients lists, at least peruse the first 3-5 ingredients. Bonus points if nutrient packed foods appear here, and if the ingredients actually reflect what the product is advertising (e.g. rolled oats in a muesli bar, skim milk in a yoghurt).
"The ingredients are listed on the ingredients list in order of their weight/predominance"
Try to avoid products that list sugars/fats in the first 3-5 ingredients. Of course many food companies like to fool us, so look for the following buzz words:
Sugar: fructose, glucose, cane sugar, brown sugar, rice syrup, rice malt, golden syrup, corn syrup, sucrose, maltodextrin, honey, agave
Fat: butter, cream, coconut oil, margarine, milk solids, palm oil, full cream milk powder, cocoa butter
Salt: baking powder, MSG, rock salt, sodium, sodium bicarbonate, garlic salt, mineral salts
2. STEP 2: SCAN THE SERVING SIZE
The top of the label will always reflect the servings per packet, and the “serving size”. Again, this is an opportunity for food marketing trickery as the manufacturer decides on the serving size. This serving size will often be different to our actual portion size, and may also vary between different types of products.
For example, I’ve seen two brands of potato chips with the same flavour product and same packet size. However, Chip Brand A listed “6 servings per packet, serving size 27g), and Chip Brand B listed “10 servings per packet, serving size 17g). Of course, Brand B appeared healthier on the nutrition panel, because despite being the same product, the “serving size” was smaller therefore fewer calories, fats and carbohydrates. And honestly, I don’t know anyone that eats a 17g serving of potato chips (about 8 potato chips) which is clearly giving us a false impression.
In summary, reflect on your actual portion size of the food and make a rough translation of the nutrition information per serving. To compare products or compare the composition of fats, sugars, fibre and sodium, refer to the second/third column entitled “Average Quantity per 100g.”
3. STEP THREE: GRASP THE “PER 100 GRAM” GUIDELINES.
Lastly, glance over the righthand column on the nutrition panel that refers to nutrition “per 100g” of the product. The following guidelines can help assess the nutrition composition of the products to maximise nutritionL benefits and reduce “non-essentials” including added sugars, fats or salts. Screenshot the following or transcribe onto a post-it note to keep handy in your wallet when doing the shopping.
Total energy/kilojoules: Worth a glance, in order to compare to our daily energy requirements (Average adult diet may be based on 8700kJ per day). Unless calorie counting, it’s not too worthwhile assessing the exact numbers. You can always compare the total energy per 100g between two brands of the same product to find the lowest. Or a good guideline for low energy packaged snacks is “<600kJ per serving” (just remember to decide if your portion size is actually similar to the recommended portion size).
Fats, saturated: Keep an eye on reducing those saturated fats, which we know increase LDL cholesterol levels and can also lead to excess fat storage around the liver and other organs. A great guideline is below 2g/100g, which can help you tell the difference between confusing skim, trim, reduced fat and Lite claims.
Sugars, added: Try to limit added sugars below 15g/100g, or below 10g for an extra challenge. This is not only handy for maintaining a healthy weight, but improving dental health, gut health, and reducing health risks.
Many of my patients have noticed that often times, low fat products can be higher in sugar. And reduced sugar products may be full fat. These guidelines will now give you some context, to decide which products meets both of these guidelines more closely.
Sodium: The general recommendation here is below 120mg per 100g, but this can be quite challenging to find on food labels as sodium is used during a lot of food processing (even in breads and crackers). Generally, look for the lowest sodium brand of a particular product, and get excited if you see a rare product with below 120mg/100g sodium on the label.
Dietary fibre: Fibre is the key to good gut health and will help us feel full and sustained between meals and snacks. A high fibre product will contain greater than 5g/100g.