Food labels decoded: Making sense of nutritional panels
If you find reading food labels in search of healthy eating options hard to digest, you’re not alone.
Manufacturers are tightly bound by Food Safety Australia New Zealand regulations in what they have to include on food labels – but unless you know what you are looking for, reading nutritional panels can be a minefield.
Dietitian Nicole Dynan says labels are “busy” and people often focus on one ingredient, particularly sugar, giving them a false sense of security.
Which information must be included on food labels?
Most packaged foods in Australia have nutrition information panels.
Under FSANZ rules, these labels must reveal how much of the following is in the product:
- Energy (in kilojoules or both kilojoules and calories)
- Saturated fat
- Sodium (salt)
These contents must show average amount per 100g (or 100ml for liquids) and per serving.
A breakdown of what’s on nutrition labels
Energy or kilojoules
This is the total amount of kilojoules in the product when you add up the protein, fat, carbohydrate, sugars, and dietary fibre.
It can help you calculate how the product factors into your recommended daily intake of kilojoules, which is around 8700kj for most healthy adults, although it can vary depending on age, gender, muscle mass, whether you’re growing, and how active you are.
This is essential for good health, growth and development.
As a guide, adult women require 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight, while men need 0.84g per kilogram (which for a 75kg man would equate to 63g of protein per day).
Pregnant and breastfeeding women require around 1g of protein per kilogram.
High-protein foods include flesh foods and legumes such as beans and lentils.
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This is listed as total fat, which is the sum of the saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats.
Saturated fats must also be listed separately.
Fat should comprise approximately 20 to 35 per cent of total energy intake, and Nicole recommends making sure no more than a third of this comes from saturated fat.
The carbohydrate value on a nutritional panel includes starches and sugars.
Found in bread, cereals, rice, pasta, milk, vegetables and fruit, carbohydrates provide energy to cells.
While a highly valuable nutrient, there is no set recommended daily intake of carbohydrates for most age and gender groups.
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While included as part of the carbohydrate value on a nutritional panel, sugars are also listed separately.
The sugar value includes naturally occurring sugars as well as added sugar.
Importantly, products claiming “no added sugar” can still have a high natural sugar content.
The World Health Organisation recommends “free” sugars make up no more than 10 per cent of daily kilojoule intake.
Free sugars are those added to foods and drinks, and those naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
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Essential for healthy gut functioning, dietary fibre has also been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes.
The recommended daily intake for adults is 25-30g per day.
Nicole recommends looking for foods with 5g of fibre or more per 100g.
Fibre does not need to be included on the nutritional information panel unless the product is making a nutritional claim about fibre.
Sodium is the component of salt that impacts health and is linked with high blood pressure and stroke.
The recommended daily intake of sodium for adults is 6g a day.
Nicole says sodium can be hidden in many processed foods, including sweets and packaged meals.
She suggests looking for products with a sodium content of 120mg or less per 100g.
Percentage daily intakes are based on what the average person should eat of these foods per day.
“If one food says it’s 15 per cent of your daily intake, then what else are you eating that day and ask can you ‘afford’ that food that day,” says University of Newcastle food science researcher Dr Emma Beckett.
Ingredients must be listed on the nutritional panel in order of the largest to smallest by weight. This can help you quickly identify the health value of a product if sugar, salt, or fats are listed in the top three ingredients.
It’s important to note alternative terms might be listed to describe some ingredients.
- Sugar may be listed as corn syrup, dextrose, disaccharides, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, fruit syrup, lactose, malt, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, monosaccharides, sorbitol, or xylitol.
- Salt can be described as sodium, booster, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphite, sodium nitrate, nitrate or stock cubes.
A note on portions – not all serves are equal
While food labelling is aimed at helping us make informed choices, US research revealed understanding labels can be problematic as most people incorrectly interpreted serving sizes to refer to how much food can or should be consumed in a healthy diet.
“There’s a common misunderstanding a serving size (on a food label) is how much you’re meant to eat or a standard serve in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, but that’s not the case,” Dr Beckett says.
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Adding to the confusion, Dr Beckett says differing suggested serving sizes between similar products can also make things tricky.
“Comparing ‘per serve’ between soy sauce brands, was ten times different – one was 5ml and one was 50ml,” she says.
“The ‘serve’ is what the manufacturer expects you to eat.”
It can be even more confusing when an item contains several “serves”. For example, a 200g tub of yoghurt may list a serve as 100g.
“No one sits down and eats half a tub of yoghurt,” says Dr Beckett.
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Written by Sally Heppleston and Claire Burke.