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.

Energy
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
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.

Additives
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)’.

Allergens
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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Genetically modified (GM) foods
All genetically modified foods must be labelled as such.

The difference between ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’ dates
Use by dates are displayed on food packaging where the food needs to be eaten or drunk within a certain time frame for health and safety reasons. Once a use by date has passed, it is no longer safe to eat that food. Best before dates can be found on foods with a shelf life of less than two years. These foods may lose some of their nutritional value or quality after the best before date, but they are still safe to eat after this time.

Labelling tricks to avoid
These tricky labelling devices are designed to make you think that a food is healthier than it really is.

Light or lite food
Foods which are described as ‘light’ or ‘lite’ may not be low in fat or healthy, instead they might be light in colour, texture or taste. Read the nutritional information on these foods carefully, and avoid ‘light’ or ‘lite’ foods which are high in sugar or which have a similar amount of fat to a comparable full fat version of the product.

Low-fat
Low-fat foods must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat. Companies will often add a lot of sugar or chemicals to improve the taste or texture of low-fat foods, so ensure you read the ingredients list to find out what they have replaced the fat with. Remember a food which is 90 per cent fat free is made of 10 per cent fat. Avoid low-fat foods with lots of additives or high sugar levels which have been added to improve the taste and texture.

No cholesterol or low cholesterol
Only animal products contain cholesterol, including meat, dairy and eggs. A ‘low-cholesterol’ or ‘no cholesterol’ label on a food made from plant material is meaningless. When you purchase food made from plant material which has been labelled as ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘no cholesterol’ you are paying a premium for a meaningless health label, so avoid these products.

Do you read labels in the supermarket? Have you picked up on any other sneaky labelling tricks? Or do you have a handy tip for comparing similar foods on the go? 



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