If you look at food labels with confusion, you are not alone. We have compiled some useful tips to help you decipher the words on product packaging, so you can make healthier choices next time you are at the supermarket.
TIP: The ingredient list of a product is always arranged in order from largest to smallest. Pay attention to the first three ingredients.
What do the buzz words mean?
Diet / Low Joule
If an item has “diet” on the packaging it is telling you that it is low in either sugar or low in fat. These foods or drinks often contain artificial sweeteners. For example, Diet Coke contains aspartame as a sugar substitute – be aware that it also contains more caffeine than regular coke.
No Added Sugar
This is quite straight forward, as it literally means “no ADDED sugar.” Note the word “added”, as it still may contain natural types of sugars such as fructose or milk sugar. Remember, items high in added sugars should only be eaten in small amounts.
Lite or Light
Do not assume because a product has “light” splashed all over it that it is necessarily better for you. Light or Lite may refer to lower fat, salt or sugar content – but check what they are being replaced with. For example, light in sugar may mean high in fat. Companies can be sneaky and use these key words to refer to the colour or the flavour. For example, the word “light” doesn’t refer to an olive oil being lower in calories, instead it is a marketing term used to describe the oil’s lighter flavour.
Reduced fat means it will be lower in fat than its regular counterpart. For example, reduced fat peanut butter will have less fat than the regular peanut butter from the same brand. To be labelled “reduced fat” a product must have 25% less fat than the regular product. Please note that reduced fat and low fat are not the same thing!
To bare the label of “low fat” a product must contain no more than 3 grams of fat her 100 grams. If it is a liquid item, it must contain no more than 1.5 grams per 100 grams.
To be classed as fat free a product must contain no more than 0.15 grams of fat per 100 grams. If you spot a product that is 90% fat free, just be aware that the other 10% is still going to be fat.
The term “cholesterol free” can often mislead the consumer, as the only products which contain cholesterol are animal foods. If you see a plant based product labelled “cholesterol free”, it doesn’t really mean anything special. Just because a food is cholesterol free does not mean it is low in fat or energy.
Natural, Real or Fresh
Natural sounds good, doesn’t it? Natural has many different meanings and shouldn’t be relied upon as part of your decision making process. After all, sugar is natural and that does not make it good for us.
No Added Salt
While this is a good start, this simply means no salt has been added to the product. The food item may still contain a portion of natural salt.
Just like reduced fat, reduced salt simply means the product contains 25% less salt when compared to the regular version. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is low in salt – but it is going to be better than the alterative.
Low Salt or Low Sodium
If a product is labelled low in salt, it is going to have less than 120 milligrams per 100 grams making it a healthier choice.
Fibre is important in aiding digestion and keeps you fuller for longer. To be classed as high fibre, a product must have more than 3 grams of dietary fibre per serving.
Gluten Free has become a trend, but is only required if you have Coeliac Disease. A product labelled Gluten Free must contain NO detectable gluten. Gluten Free products may be higher in sugar or salt, so check the label thoroughly.
Low GI means they are digested slowly, keeping your blood sugar levels under control. If a product bares the Low GI symbol it means it has been approved by a testing facility and meets Australian dietary guidelines.
Baked Not Fried
Yes, baked is going to be better than fried when you cook it yourself, but this is not necessarily the case when it comes to processed foods. It does not mean it is going to be low in fat or energy. Often products with the words oven baked or crunchy have added fat.
There are currently no standards for labelling a product as wholegrain, so this claim could mean very little.
The Health Star Rating System
The Health Star Rating System is still fairly new to Australia and gives you a basic glance at where the item sits on a comparative health scale. Just remember, these are only to compare similar products and not all products use this system. Take a look at the following video from ABC’s The Checkout for a simple explanation of how comparisons work, and why you can’t compare a muesli bar to a salad, even if they both have 4 stars:
Just to add to the confusion, brands often use different names for common ingredients which we want to avoid. You can print off this convenient reference chart to take to the shop with you:
Oil, shortening, tallow, lard, dripping, cream, copha, milk solids, monoglycerides, diglycerides, butter, margarine.
Sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, lactose, syrup, malt extract, molasses, monosaccharides, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, raw sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, modified carbohydrate.
Sodium, rock salt, onion salt, celery salt, garlic salt, vegetable salt, MSG, meat extracts, yeast extracts, booster, stock cubes, baking soda, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate.
Try to ignore the big, bold claims listed on the packaging, and try to limit foods which are highly processed. Instead, select wholegrain varieties, fresh foods and choose products with less added salt and more fibre. Limit foods high in sugar and saturated fat such as biscuits, cakes and pastries to special occasions and small amounts.