By Cecily-Anna Bennett
Are you bamboozled by what the terms ‘low fat’, ‘salt reduced’ or ‘light’ actually mean? Does the small print on nutrition-information panels (NIPs) send you cross-eyed with confusion? Well, it’s time to get clued-up.
“Understanding food labels helps consumers compare products, so they can choose the healthiest options and tailor food choices to suit their individual needs,” says accredited practising dietitian Maria Packard. “The two most useful tools are the NIP and the ingredients list.” So read on to instantly overhaul your eating habits.
Per serve & per 100g
This can be one of the most confusing parts of the food-label equation. As Packard explains, food manufacturers decide how large their products’ serving sizes are, so this dictates the per-serve information. For example, if a product contains four serves, and you polish off the lot in one go, you’ve just eaten four times its per-serve nutritional content. But the standard per-100g listing, which most labels show, is an exact amount, so you can easily compare nutritional values.
When you’re trying to lose weight and comparing the kilojoule counts of two foods, it’s always best to go low. “Try to choose high-fibre foods that contain the least energy and fat,” advises Packard.
“The average Australian adult needs about 8,700 kJ (2,078 cal) per day, but this estimate depends on factors such as your age, height, weight, gender and physical-activity levels.” (To calculate your daily kilojoule intake, visit preventionhealthtracker.com.au.)
The average Australian adult requires 50g of protein per day, although this varies due to individual requirements, says Packard. Many protein-rich foods don’t have nutritional labels— think vegies, fresh meat, fish and grains—but many others do.
You’ll find a range of labelled protein-rich foods (eggs, cheese, yoghurt, milk, tofu, vegetarian sausages and burger patties) in the aisles and refrigerated sections of supermarkets. Protein-rich foods contain nutrients and minerals that are essential for energy conversion.
“This listing includes fats from the four main types: saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated,” says Packard. So what should you look out for? “Healthy options contain less than 5g of total fat per 100g. Up to 10g of total fat per 100g is also acceptable, as long as the sat fat accounts for less than 50% of the total fat content.”
According to the Heart Foundation, sat fat contributes to the build-up of unhealthy LDL cholesterol, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. “When comparing products, always go for the one with the least sat fat,” advises Packard.
These compounds include both starches and sugars, says Packard, which is important to know if you’re diabetic or counting carbs. The key is to remember that not all carbs are created equal!
Choose low-glycaemic-index (low-GI) foods, as they’ll keep you feeling satisfied and prevent blood-sugar spikes and slumps. Low-GI options include grainy and sourdough breads, natural untoasted muesli and unsweetened porridge.
“This term includes added sugar, as well as naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit (fructose) and in milk (maltose),” explains Packard. “Thanks to extensive studies on GI, we now know that a food’s sugar content is an unreliable guide as to whether or not it’s a healthy choice.
Despite their natural sugars, sweet fruit- and milk-based products, such as yoghurt and tinned fruit, can still be healthy options when compared with other sugar-rich foods that are nutrient poor (like soft drinks),” she says. It’s always wise to check the ingredients list to see exactly where the sugar content appears. If it’s near the top of the list, it’s a main ingredient.
The average adult requires 30g of fibre per day, so look for products that provide at least 3g of fibre per 100g. Why is fibre so important? “It keeps our digestive system healthy; helps lower LDL cholesterol; and reduces our risk of developing common conditions, such as constipation, as well as more serious disorders, such as bowel cancer. And if you have diabetes, fibre can help control blood-glucose levels,” explains Packard.
“Healthier food options should contain less than 450mg of sodium per 100g,” says Packard. “By law, if a product claims to be ‘low sodium’, it must contain less than 120mg sodium per 100g.”
Keep the sodium count of each complete meal to 600mg or less, and consume no more than 2,300mg per day. High-sodium foods to limit include ready-made meals, smoked fish, stir-fry sauces, processed meats, tinned soups and stocks.
“Food manufacturers must list ingredients in descending order by weight,” says accredited practising dietitian Maria Packard. “This means that the first listing is the major ingredient, and that the last ingredient is the most minor. So if fat, sugar or salt are listed at the top of the panel, you can be sure that the product contains more of these.”
The tricky thing is that fat, salt and sugar often travel incognito under a variety of aliases. So next time you’re checking a nutrition label, look out for these other terms for fat, sugar and salt.Fat: oil, butter, copha, cream, lard, animal fat, shortening, vegetable oil,
palm oil, tallow, hydrogenated oil, mono-, di- or triglycerides
Sugar: corn syrup, dextrose, disaccharides, monosaccharides, sorbitol, sucrose, mannitol, malt, maltose, fructose, glucose, molasses, maple syrup
Salt: sodium, sodium bicarbonate, chicken seasoning, baking powder, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sea salt, garlic salt, celery salt