How to read food labels
Confused by all those facts and figures on the back of your food packets and drink bottles? Dietitian Janeane Dart tells Victoria Brown what they mean – and how we can use the information to eat healthier.
Unless you have a degree in healthy eating, the Nutritional Informational Panel on the back of your favourite snacks can seem pretty daunting. You know there’s helpful information written there, but it might as well be in another language – it’s that confusing.
That’s why we’ve asked Janeane Dart from Monash University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics to unravel the mysteries of the Panel. There is a lot of information to take in, so instead of just rattling it all off, we’re only focusing on the categories you need to watch to have a healthier diet or lose some weight.
But let’s start with the basics.
What is a Nutritional Informational Panel?
It’s the table on the back of most food packets. It tells you everything you need to know about the fats, cholesterol, sugars, vitamins and anything else that’s contained in the food you’re buying.
Ms Dart says the serving size on the packet is dictated by the manufacturer. Take bread for example. Most manufacturers suggest the average serving size is two slices of bread, but some people might eat only one slice or two sandwiches, which is four slices – so it’s up to personal preference really.
If you want to know what the recommended daily servings are, check out the Australian government’s health website’s Servings Table.
Servings per container
This one’s pretty easy to calculate. If the packet says the serving size is 2 and the servings per container is 9, then you have 18 slices of bread in the packet.
Ms Dart describes calories as the amount of energy the food stuff provides for our body to burn. ‘Calories’ is used primarily in the United States and England, whereas in Australia, most manufacturers refer to kilojoules. So it’s important to do the math: 1 calorie is roughly 4 kilojoules.
We all need a certain amount of kilojoules a day to function. The recommended amount for adults is 8,700kJ, and if you have a look at the government’s Health website, you can see just how easy it is to consume more than that.
If you’re trying to lose weight, Ms Dart suggests reducing your calorie intake. If you’re trying to gain weight, do the opposite.
Calories from fat
If a packet has 280 calories per serving and 130 calories are from fat (that’s just under half), then it’s a very high fat product.
Out of all of the categories on the Nutritional Informational Panel, calories from fat is one of the most important. If you want to know whether the food stuff in your hand is unhealthy or not, refer to this category.
There are four types of fats; saturated and trans fats are the ones that do the most damage to health. Polyunsaturated fats or monounsaturated fats are much healthier.
If you want to lose weight, Ms Dart says avoid products that are high in both “good” and “bad” fats as they’re normally high in kilojoules, which will make you gain, not lose, weight.
For more information about “good” and “bad” fats, check out the Australian government’s Health website.
Sodium, or salt, is something we really need to keep an eye on.
“A product like fish sauce, for example, which a lot of us now use in our cooking, is extremely high in salt or sodium,” Ms Dart says.
Sodium is in most food stuffs, even milk and some fruits and vegetables. It’s also added to processed foods. Breakfast cereals have a surprisingly high salt or sodium level, so look before you buy. The same can be said for breads, biscuits, crackers, chips or even crisps.
“You don’t have to worry too much about what the numbers are, but always try to choose the one that has less sodium and always be more mindful about what you add to your food,” Ms Dart says.
And tough as it sounds, you shouldn’t consuming more than 10g – or two teaspoons – of salt a day.
Australians on a whole don’t eat enough fibre, says Ms Dart, but ideally we should be eating 30g of fibre a day.
Fibre has a great range of benefits – it fills us up, improves bowel health, helps us go to the loo regularly, reduces the risk of bowel cancer and it can also help reduce cholesterol.
Plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, cereals and breads are a good source of fibre, while meat and dairy foods generally do not have any fibre in them.
Here’s a tip those with a sweet tooth may not want to here:
“If you’re looking at a can of soft drink, it’ll have around 40 grams of sugar. If you think that 5 grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon then each can of soft drink has about eight teaspoons of sugar in it. It’s the same with fruit juice, which can have quite a lot of sugar,” Ms Dart says.
So if you’re trying to lose weight, reduce the amount of sugar you consume.
You shouldn’t really be having more than 50g of sugar a day – that’s 12 teaspoons.
Glycemic Index (GI)
To understand this one, we’ll use an example – baked beans.
Ms Dart says baked beans have a low glycemic index, so they take a while to break down, keeping us feeling fuller for a longer time.
“High GI foods like soft drinks are very quickly absorbed into our blood stream,” she says. “They give us a quick peak in our blood sugar, but 30 to 40 minutes later, we’ll feel hungry again.”
Some good low GI foods include fruit, pasta and yoghurt, all of which will sustain you for longer. Ms Dart recommends having at least one low GI food with each meal and as a snack because it’s a really good way to help with appetite regulation and feeling satisfied.
Worried about what you eat? Use the Australian Government’s health kilojoule and nutrient calculator to find out if your daily diet is healthy.