How to read food labels

How to avoid getting caught out by sneaky labelling tricks.

How to read food labels

Food labels are broken into different sections. Here we explain how to read each section and how to avoid getting caught out by sneaky labelling tricks.

Nutrition information panel
The nutrition information panel provides information about the amount of energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium contained in a food. There are two columns in the nutrition information panel – the ‘per serve’ column and the ‘per 100g’ column. To compare two similar foods, ensure you are reading from the ‘per 100g’ column on each label to get a realistic comparison.

In Australia energy is listed in kilojoules. There are 4.2 kilojoules to a calorie, so if you are used to working in calories you can use a calculator to make the conversion.

Saturated fat
All saturated fat must legally be included in the nutrition information panel. Saturated fat is especially bad for your health – it can increase your blood cholesterol levels, as well as putting you at risk of heart disease. Avoid foods high in saturated fat.

Sodium is another word for salt. Foods high in sodium are high in salt, so if you suffer from high blood pressure, it is best to avoid foods which have a lot of sodium.

Ingredients list
All ingredients contained in a food must be included in the ingredients list. Foods are listed in order of weight – if sugar is in the top two or three ingredients, the food is going to be relatively high in sugar. Try to avoid foods with unhealthy ingredients high in the ingredients list.

Natural and synthetic food additives must all be identified on the packaging, no matter how small the amount used in the food. Food additives are listed by both their name and number, for example, ‘food acid (331)’.

Any ingredients known to cause a severe allergic reaction in some people must be declared on the label. Some common allergens are nuts, seafood, milk, eggs and soybeans. Many manufactures will also state that a food ‘may contain traces’ of an allergen, even if the allergen is not in the ingredients list, as the food has been made in a factory where the allergen is present.

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    4th Nov 2013
    I think we now all know that we should be eating low fat and low sugar, but when reading the labels what figure should we be looking for to know if it's an acceptable level of sugar or fat eg I've read that 6 grams of sugar per 100 grams of the product is OK - is this correct? But I'm not sure about the amount of fat.
    4th Nov 2013
    Good question Paris, the intro provided no info as to how to interpret the numbers to make reasonable decisions.
    The answer is quite complex and depends on the type of food. One good way to get come comprehensive guidelines is to google NHF+Tick programme+Criteria which will give you guidelines for lots of foods. You will see fat cut offs will vary in cheeses, milks, yoghurts etc, same for sodium, energy etc.
    For fat, ensure sat fat is 1/3rd or less of total in most (not dairy) products. Trans fat should be <1% in any product (but won't necessarily be revealed unless some fat is named or implied on front of packet).

    However, NHF does have a 'blind spot; - sugar, it won't talk about it, not considered of
    import. My suggestion - if you don't guzzle much juice or soft drink- you should be OK. If you want to go further, compare cereals to cereals, jams to jams etc, choosing a lower one.
    Sodium will be the same - different levels in diff products. Key here is the level AND the amount you consume eg if tomato sauce, t paste, t pasta sauce have the same sodium level you will consume much more via the pasta sauce as you will eat much more of it - so prioritize that one to find the lowest level.

    Fibre is another good one to look for>5g/100 in breads and >10g/100 cereals is good.

    Finally, the ingredient list can reveal % content, but only if an ingredient is named on the front of packet eg "AVOCADO" dip - would you pay for 10% avo if another product has 60%? or tins of flavoured tune (35-70% tuna variance). I always check this out.

    I do know a fair bit about this stuff and am happy to respond further if of interest.
    4th Nov 2013
    Great info - thanks Kopernicus. Looks like I have a lot of reading to do!
    4th Nov 2013
    Toamato sauce has sugar in it, 26.1 grams /100 ml, plus 885 mgs /100 ml. Funnily , they are now stating the amount of Lycopenes, 9.9 mgs/100 ml. Somebody must have realised how important this product is for good prostate health. Did anyone watch Catalyst on the ABC last week and the week before. I would suggest all those of you on Statins for your cholesterol watch this on ,then go to iview, then 'all programmes', then 'documentary' then scroll down and click on Catalyst. Watch both episodes of this programme !! You have 3 days to watch the first one, the second expires in 10 days.
    4th Nov 2013
    OOps, try Tomato sauce !!
    A. N. Onymous
    4th Nov 2013
    Frank's deadlines on iView for the two Catalyst programs (Heart of the Matter, Parts 1 and 2) are correct.

    The direct links on iView are
    Part 1 -
    Part 2 -

    If you miss them on iView, however, you can go to the program's website -- - where you will find:
    (a) story archives going back back to 2001 -
    (b) video downloads -
    and more.

    ABC iView is unmetered on computers for some ISPs so that the streaming does not count towards download allowances of those companies. It is metered on other devices. For full details go to .

    If you ARE NOT with one of the non-metered ISPs, you will be using part of your download allowance to watch the programs on iView. If you then decide you would like to watch them again and/or save them, you will use more of your download allowance to watch them again or to download them. So you might as well download them from the vodcast link above in the first place. You can then then watch them as many times as you like and/or copy them to a flash drive for friends and/or relatives.

    If you ARE with one of the non-metered ISPs, watching anything on iView does not count towards your download allowance. So you might as well watch them on iView. If you then decide you would like to keep them, downloading the vodcast will count in your allowance.

    I saw both programs and found them extremely interesting. I was discussing them last night on the telephone with a friend who works for the Queensland Health Department. I told her the programs reminded me of being told years ago (when my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the question of a second opinion came up) that if you ask a room with a dozen doctors in it for a medical opinion, you'll get at least half a dozen (or words to that effect -- the numbers might not have been 12 and 6, but the point was that there wouldn't be universal agreement).
    4th Nov 2013
    It certainly was interesting. I really disliked the sensationalist overtone of the presentation - it sounded like 60 minutes (aka 47mins).
    However it did float an alternate theory - instead of atherosclerosis caused thru clogging of arteries by cholesterol it invoked the inflammatory hypothesis - arteries first damaged by inflammation, the clogging being an inept attempt to cover the damage caused. This has huge dietary implications and places some polyunsaturated fats under question (Not omegs3 or 'fish oils') and throws in excess carb consumption (especially high GI) because excess insulin response (to which obesity and inactivity is a huge contributor) may aid the inflammatory processes.
    However, facts are very hard to establish in science - look at climate change.

    I did think there was a validity to the observation that most research was funded by Big Pharma and the self interest therein. No doubt statins are over prescribed ...... but ......

    This morning I heard a very angry Norman Swan from ABC's Health Report who clearly thought Compass needed challenge for that show. He was big on the valid point that cardio stuff was multifactorial, cholesterol was only one factor and even there genetics may have huge role where with that sort of history, statins can be a lifesaver for some.

    So, Onymous - yes there is a mix of opinion. I would not swallow the Compass presentation holus bolus nor readily jump to fill my statin script. All do seem to agree - the Mediterranean diet is about the best evidence, full cream dairy, olive oil, lots of veg and fruit,seafood, modest serves of meat, no takeaways in the study. I loved Greek food during my brief stay, much less fatty than Greek cuisine here and far less meat. And being physically active.
    5th Nov 2013
    You know i believe, we are having so many health problems, because our foods have been genetically modified.
    I mean all this watching of sugars etc all the time diabeties rife! and of course many of us are now sedentry which doesn't help much< not all of us, just some.
    and you see how many vitamins are out there.
    I find i eat me veg etc, but i'm not getting much out of them unless I grow them, so its not being sprayed with some stupid chemical. and Probably chemicals that are being used on our foods, are causing cancer etc in the long term. Of course i can't prove it. but it seems they do like to blame our genes for this instead of looking to what the hell is going on our foods??
    and so many of us need pain killers cause our joints are falling to peices. YOU know Hell my aunty was in her 90th year IN ukraine, only eating her own produce, and died much closer to the 100 mark, couldn't remember her age, and nobody kept track. but bout that...SO Whats going on in this world. I think Many drug companies are behind all this its all FOR $$$$
    5th Nov 2013
    Unfortunately it is not the fat and sugar you should be most worried about it's the additives, things added to either make it taste better or to alter the look and or colour, with the exception of a small number compared to how many are available they are mostly bad for us, whether we have health problems or not, in Australia's case we have additives in our food that are banned in most countries in the world

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