Deciphering the messages on food labels is often very difficult. Clever marketing and product placement means it is sometimes hard to know if a product is truly healthy or not. We really encourage everyone to learn what to look for on food packaging, so that can more easily decide for yourself! Read on to find out more.
The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
In Australia, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) governs food-labeling standards. They state that all food products MUST include a NIP on the packaging. The only exceptions are very small items such as chewing gum. The NIP must show the energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar and sodium content of that product. This information must be displayed per serving and per 100g/100ml.
Below is an example NIP for a breakfast cereal.(1)
Learning to read the NIP allows you to determine if a product is a healthy choice, and compare it to other products. That way you cannot be tricked by sneaky marketing– you can check for yourself! So lets break down the info shown.
Compare products using the per 100g/100ml column. Serving sizes of various products vary so that column is useless for making comparisons.
Fat is displayed as both total and saturated fat. The ‘total fat’ line includes saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Below this the amount of just saturated fat is shown.
‘Carbohydrate’ includes sugars and starches in the product. ‘Sugars’ indicates the amount of naturally occurring and added sugar in the product. This can be a bit confusing however as there is no way to know how much of this is added and how much of this is naturally occurring. Yoghurt is a good example of this. The sugar content of yoghurt is often high – but how do we know how much of it is lactose from milk, and how much is added during processing? We will discuss this more later!
Tips for Reading Nutrition Information Panels
What numbers should you be looking for? (2)
Total Fat: <10g/100g
Saturated Fat: <3g/100g
Sugars: <15g/100g (if more check ingredients list, read below)
Sodium: <400mg/100g is good, <120mg/100g is great!
Fibre*: >3g/100g – the more the better
*Note: fibre does not have to be included on all NIPs. If the product makes a health claim however i.e. ‘high in fibre’, then it must be stated.
The Ingredients List
All ingredients that make up the food product must be declared in the ingredients list. All allergens i.e gluten, egg, soy, must also be declared. Ingredients are listed by weight from highest to lowest in the ingredients list. It is important to consider this in conjunction with the NIP to get a clear picture of the food product.
If we go back to our yoghurt example from earlier, the ingredients list can be very helpful in determining where the sugar in the product is coming from.
Compare these 2 ingredients list for example.
Ingredients: milk, milk solids, fruit, live cultures
Ingredients: milk, milk solids, sugar, live cultures
These 2 yoghurts may have very similar sugar contents on the NIP. However in the first product, most of that sugar is clearly naturally occurring, both the lactose in the milk, and fructose in the fruit.
Conversely in the second product we can see that there is less naturally occurring sugar (lactose in the milk) and more added sugars, as sugar is listed as one of the first few ingredients. The further down the list you find sugar the better, as remember ingredients are listed by weight.
In this example the first yoghurt is the healthier choice!
So that’s it – the basics of food label reading! We hope this is helpful and empowers you to make healthier choices in the supermarket. We would love to hear your feedback!
- Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (2014). AUSNUT 2011-13 – Australian Food Composition Database. Canberra: FSANZ. Food item used: breakfast cereal, wheat based, whole wheat, flakes, flakes only, unfortified.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat for Health (2015). Available at: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/eating-well/how-understand-food-labels