Reading Food Labels

Reading food labels and understanding what they mean is a great habit in making healthier choices.

Nutrition information labels provide a variety of data on the average amount of energy and quantity that a particular good contains. Energy is represented kilojoules and calories. They provide a helpful resource in the amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrate contained in the product. Included are Items like sugars and sodium (a component of salt). Food labels help you make an informed decision about the food you buy and eat. Reading food labels is a great way of understanding the basics of what is in your food. It ensures a more informed purchase complimenting a balanced approach to nutrition. Some goods even include a health star rating which helps you in making healthier choices.

There are a few foods that don’t require a nutrition information panel. For example, herbs, spices, mineral water, tea and coffee as they have no significant nutritional value. Other foods sold unpackaged at the point of sale like bread rolls or fruit and vegetables don’t come with labels. However, when a supplier makes a food claim then expect a more detailed nutrition label. For example, good source of calcium or Low fat, gluten free, low GI or reduced salt.

When adopting a healthy balanced diet, you need to eat an adequate amount of carbohydrates, protein rich foods that include lean meats, chicken, and a variety of dairy products. Let not forget Fruit and vegetables. These foods don’t usually have a rating or a food label. These are wholesome foods.

How to determine the portion and energy in goods

Serving size

Nutrition information labels In Australia are in a standard format. Showing the average amount per serve represented as gram or ml if the food is liquid. The food industry determines the serving size listed in the nutrition information panel. This explains why it sometimes varies from one product to the next. The per serve information is useful in estimating how much of a particular nutrient you are consuming. Helps if you are watching how much fat you are eating. You can use the average per serve amount to help calculate your daily total fat intake from packaged foods. Keep in mind that the serving sizes are just a recommendation. For those who a specific with their weight management goals this is a good start as part of a healthy eating plan.

Quantity per 100g/100ml

The quantity per 100g or 100ml information is handy to compare similar products with each other. The figures in the quantity per 100g column are the same as percentages. Something to be aware of is the average serve being lower that the per 100g quantities. You see this with cereals where they suggest a lesser serving. It’s a different story when it comes to soft drinks. The recommended per ml serve amount is usually double the amount of 100mls. Keep this in mind when counting calories and working with portions. We are fortunate that in Australia the full details per serve are available with most items. Also, percentage labelling allows an easy comparison.

Energy intake is represented as kilojoules or calories.  A simple calculation of 1 calorie equalling 4.18400 joules will help with energy requirements.

Reading food labels -The macro nutrients

Protein

Protein is essential for good health and is particularly important for growth and development in children. Generally, people in Australia eat enough protein to meet their requirements. For a healthy balanced diet, you need to eat protein rich foods like Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and cheese. These are animal sources of protein. Include vegetable sources of protein like lentils, dried peas and beans, nuts and cereals. When counting calories, protein has the same number of calories as carbohydrates per gram.

Fat

Fat is listed as total. Further broken down as saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Fat is higher in calories than other nutrients, 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4 for protein and carbs. So, keep an eye on the total intake. Saturated fats cause a variety of health problems. The main one being heart disease and high blood cholesterol. Use the panel to choose foods that are low in saturated fats. A separate entry is usually provided for the amount of saturated fat in the food. Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids are broken down to mg values.

When reading food labels understand complex and simple carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates are found in bread, cereals, rice, pasta, milk, vegetables and fruit. Carbohydrate in the nutrition information panel includes starches and sugars. Sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. The starches are found in high amounts in foods such as white, wholemeal and wholegrain varieties of cereal, breads, rice and pasta, together with root vegetables and legumes. Great energy sources. Some healthy carbohydrates slightly processed foods. Whole grains, lentils and packaged pasta, as opposed to salty chips. An additional benefit with some carbs is the amount of fibre, vitamins and minerals you digest.

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. The number of sugars in the nutrition information panel will include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, as well as added sugar. Note that products with ‘no added sugar’ nutrition claims may contain high levels of natural sugars which are usually low-quality foods. Keep an eye out for soft drinks and juices. These contain an enormous amount of sugar. As a result, limit the amount you consume, and reduce any hidden sugars often found in highly processed foods.

Other essential vitamins and mineral  

Firstly, depending on the goods that you are purchasing these additional nutrients can vary. For example, a can of tuna would have additional information and further break down the fat their product contains. The value Omega 3 fats is one, and the value of trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated is another. Whereas a box of Weet Bix lists the additional vitamins and mineral to promote the benefits of consuming their product. One a tuna can containing oil. Another a dry cereal sold in a box.

Secondly, unless a nutrition claim is made, the information does not need to be included. For example, when ‘high in fibre ’is displayed as a selling point. Or products promoting ‘low in sugar’. In both instances expect a detailed breakdown withing the panel. Similar with sodium which is the component of salt that affects your health. High levels of sodium cause elevated blood pressure and stroke. Then, for those who have medical concerns this information is of high importance.

Lastly, when it comes to understanding food panels start of slow and build your knowledge. What seemed difficult at the beginning will turn into a positive habit in consistently making healthier choices.

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