Reading food labels can be a simple task if you understand what to look for, and how to compare one product to another. Look for items which are lower in Energy (kJ), fats, sugar and sodium while being higher in dietary fibre. The following tips are most relevant to packaged and processed foods.
Here is an example of a product label which we will be referring to in this article for your reference:
Servings Per Package / Serving Size:
This is the recommended serving size based on advice from the product manufacturer. This tells you how much of the food you should be eating per serve. In the provided example the item should be consumed as 2 serves. The serving size explains this in terms of weight, as there are 2 serves of 200g, we can assume the packet size is 400g.
%DI* Per Serving:
Labels will not always state the %DI* PER SERVING percentage, but when you see this listed it is based on an average adult diet of 8700kJ. This is just a rough guide and your energy needs may require less or more dietary intake per day.
When looking at the “Energy” panel on a food label, it is important to understand that in the first column the average quantity is “per serving”. Looking at the example there are 178kJ per serving of 200g. For example, if you ate the whole item, you would need to double this number. The best way to compare the energy in different items is by looking at the “Ave. Quantity per 100g column”, this allows you to accurately make a comparison based on the same amounts of food.
Tip: For a snack, look for less than 600kJ per serve.
The total amount of fat in the item includes saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. Ideally, the total amount of total fat should be less than 10g of fat per 100g. For dairy products such as milk and yoghurt look for less than 2g of fat per 100g.
When it comes to Saturated fat, aim for less than 2g per 100g and for trans fat less than 1g per 100g. Trans fats are not always listed on the label as our example shows.
Tip: Oil and margarine are going to be high in total fat and should be considered an exception. Aim for less than 1/3 total fat for these items.
The Carbohydrate on a label gives an indication of what type of effect the item will have on your blood glucose levels. This may be important to monitor, particularly if you have Diabetes. Carbohydrate includes sugars.
This figure determines how much of the carbohydrate is made up of sugar. Sugars may also include natural sugar such as from fruit. Check the ingredients list as it is also important to know how much added sugar there is. Look for products with less than 15g of sugar per 100g, unless the first three main ingredients are fruit then it rises to less than 20g per 100g.
Tip: Drinks (with the exception of milk or pure juice) should have even less sugar than foods, look for those with under 1g per 100g.
The recommended daily intake for fibre is 30g, so choose products which are higher in this area. Aim for foods with at least 5g of fibre per 100g. Products which are high in fibre are digested more slowly and keep you fuller for longer.
Sodium is another name for salt and you should try to keep this to a minimum. Look for foods with less than 120mg per 100g as this is the best option. This is not always going to be possible and there are exceptions to this rule. Items such as bread and savoury crackers generally contain more sodium. In this case, look for less than 400mg per 100g which is still a good option.
Tip: Compare products side by side and choose the option with less sodium.
When you are aware of your individual requirements you can take this knowledge with you to the supermarket – understanding food labels will soon become a habit! Take a look in your pantry and see how your choices measure up.
Here is a free printable to help you remember these tips the next time you are out buying food. We have also compiled some useful tips on how to interpret nutrition claims on food labels, which is well worth taking the time to learn.