Sunday, 6 May 2012

Do food labels speak to you in another language?!

Ever found yourself standing in front of a wall of products at the supermarket trying to work out which is the best pick for you or the family?  Whats going through your head?  This one says high fibre but this one says low fat.  Is the high fibre one also low fat?  What about the sugar content?  Hang on, whats carbohydrates?  Is that sugar too?  Oh and this one is Australian made, well that's good!  But it also has lots of 'numbers' in the ingredients list that I don't like the sound of.  And what about the price difference per 100g and and and.....!!!!!
Or is that just me?! Perhaps for some it is about the prettiest packaging or the deepest price cut?

Food labelling has come such a long way in the last couple of decades even.  Driven predominately by the ever increasingly savvy shopper, simply having a list of ingredients is no longer enough.  We want to know basic nutrition values, allergen information, where ingredients are sourced from and whether a company and its products are Australian made and owned.  Consequently, marketing a product is now big big business.

A lot of juggling (and hours) goes into what is communicated on pack and how it is communicated.  There have been many ways developed on how to communicate nutrition information effectively, some of which have been made mandatory (ie %DI (dietary intake) thumbnails on front of pack) and others have been developed by companies themselves.  This has all become quite confusing for the regular shopper and it is any wonder people have such 'interesting' beliefs on what is 'healthy' and not so healthy.  

There is lots of jargon screaming out at us on the front of pack.  'Lite', 'reduced fat', 'fat free', 'all natural' etc etc etc.  These can all mean different things, and therefore it is more accurate to look to the back or side of pack where the ingredient list and nutrition panel are.  They cant lie (by law!) and although they may seem overwhelming and full of numbers at first, just a bit of knowledge is needed and it will be like seeing a sign printed in English in the middle of Japan! (unless of course you can read Japanese... anyway... you get my point!)

Product A
Product B

Using the two nutrition panels above I'll give you some facts which will help decode some of the jargon and help compare products for what they really are!

Ingredients List

  • By law, the ingredient list must be in order of weight in the total product. Therefore if fat, sugar or salt were towards the front of this list, the product would contain a greater proportion of these ingredients.  When looking at product A & B above, Product A has sugar listed as the second last ingredient, whereas Product B has sugar listed as invert syrup, glycerol and sugar towards the front of the list.  When you then look at the figures for sugar/100g, product A is 13.8g and product B is 25.1g!
  • Sucrose, glucose, dextrose, corn syrup, invert syrup, glycerol, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, molasses, malt, golden syrup and maple syrup are all sugar ingredients, among others!  So don't be fooled by some fancy wording!!
  • Sodium, baking soda, celery salt, garlic salt, yeast extract, MSG, sea salt, rock salt, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphate and sodium nitrate are all salt ingredients, among others! 
  • Less is more if you ask me.  I like to look at an ingredient list and think 'yep, I could make that at home.'  I know I have a pantry full of all sorts of weird and wonderful things but I know for sure that I could not make Product B at home!   
  • The labelling laws today have been really positive for those of us with food allergies (ie - gluten, egg, soy, milk products, shellfish, nuts, sesame).  When I was first diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, about 12 years ago now, it was really difficult to know whether a product was gluten free or not just by looking at the label.  I was constantly calling food manufacturers to find out.  Now it boldly states in the ingredients list whether there is an allergen - and it makes it easier for friends and family who are cooking for me too!!

Nutrition Panel

  • When you look at the nutrition information panel, there is a per serving and per 100g column. The 'per 100g' values are best used to compare with other products as their serving sizes can be different.  When looking at the 'per serve' values, just be mindful of the serving sizes that are recommended.  Take breakfast cereals for example - I wouldn't know many people who would actually only eat 45g of cereal, especially the more dense options such as muesli.  It is quite often 2-3 times that to even half fill a bowl!!   
  • Some nutrition panels now have a %DI column (as per Product B).  This is helpful as it helps make some sense of the numbers!  It is telling you what percentage of the recommended daily intake of that nutrient is in that serve/100g.  So in product B, one serve provides an average adult with 1% of their recommended daily fat intake, 13% sugar and nearly a quarter of your recommended daily fibre intake. Remember though, those percentages are for adults not kids!
  • If you are looking for a low sugar breakfast cereal for the kids (or yourself), as a general rule of thumb, a cereal without added fruit should sit at or below 15g/100g sugar, whilst a cereal with added fruit should sit at or below 25g/100g sugar.  Did you know that you would have to eat 8 Kids Weetbix to get to one teaspoon of sugar?  While cocoa puffs contain roughly 40-50% sugar!
  • If you are looking for a food low in fat, the total fat content should be less than 3g/100g.
  • Low salt foods are considered to be at or below 120mg/100g of sodium.  (check out a tin of soup next time you are at Safeway, or your pantry!)  The recommended daily intake for sodium (in adults) is 2300mg which may seem like a lot, but it actually equates to just 1 teaspoon!  You can probably see now why the average Australian eats 8-9 times that amount. 

Nutrition claims

  • Just be mindful of some of the nutrition claims that are made on food products:
    • A product could still contain fat even if it states 'Cholesterol Free' Vegetable based fats - ie canola oil don't contain cholesterol although they are still a fat.
    • 'Oven baked, not fried' does not necessarily mean they are free from added fat.  These products are generally coated with fat before cooking.
    • Even though a product may say 'fat free', this does not necessarily mean it has no kilojoules.  An example of this is confectionary/lollies.  The kilojoules are just coming from sugar instead of fat or protein.
    • 'Lite' or 'Light' doesn't necessarily relate to the fat or overall kilojoule content.  It can often be referring to the flavour or colour of the product so just check the ingredients.
    • 'Reduced fat' and 'salt reduced' does not always mean a product is low in fat/salt.  It just means it has been reduced when compared to the standard product but it may still not be low in fat/salt.  Check the nutrition panel to know for sure. 
If you are new to reading labels, don't feel too overwhelmed.  Once you get the hang of it you'll take no time to do a quick check and decide whether it is the right product for you.  Also you will become familiar with brands that are better than others and wont have to check the labels every time you shop!  So many nutrient 'savings' and 'additions' can be had by just selecting the right product.  There are huge differences between brands of rice crackers (types of fat used and sodium levels especially), snack bars (sugar, fat and sodium levels especially), bread (sodium and fibre levels especially), and dairy products (sugar levels and additives used especially) to name just a few.

Small changes add up to big benefits!


  1. Food for thought Mel! Nutrition labels certainly are a mine field! Adds so much extra time onto the shopping outing but once you know the good products and ones you can have, it's not too bad!!

  2. Yes you're right farmtocitygirl! It can take time but once you know what to look for it gets easier. And theres a real sense of satisfaction and control that you get back when you know you are choosing the right products for your nutrition needs!

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