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How to read food labels

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The nutrition details on food packaging may seem like a foreign language, but they don’t have to be! Food labels can help you cut through the marketing and pretty exterior of the product, and tell you more about exactly what you’re putting in your body.

Here’s an example of a food label that we’ll use to take you through the basics of nutrition labels:

Nutrition Information

 Servings per package: 8
Serving size: Approx 17g
Average quantity
per serve
Average quantity
per 100g
 Energy  241kJ  1420kJ
 Protein  1.2g 7.0g
 Fat, Total Less than 0.1g 0.2g
  – Saturated Less than 0.1g 0.2g
 Carbohydrate 13.0g 76.5g
  – Sugars 8.8g 51.8g
 Sodium 9mg 50mg
Reconstituted fruit juice (65%) [Apple (62%), Raspberry (3%)], Glucose Syrup, Sugar, Beef Gelatin, Food Acids, (Citric Acid, Malic Acid), Gelling Agent (Pectin), Natural Flavours, Natural Colours (163), Glazing Agent (Vegetable Oil, Carnauba Wax, Bees Wax).

Label walkthrough

Energy will be shown as either kilojoules (kJ) or calories (cal or Kcal). Even if something is low in fat or sugar, it may be high in energy and if your body doesn’t use it up it will get stored as fat.

Protein is needed to help your muscles grow and repair. It’s most likely found in meat products, dairy products, eggs, fish, lentils and legumes. Protein is a good thing to have.

Fat can either be good or not so good. The key thing to remember here is that high fat content can contribute a lot to the overall energy in the product. We want saturated fat to be as low as possible, as this is the kind that can contribute to cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol levels.

Carbohydrate is fast access energy for your body; it’s good to have carbs as part of a healthy balanced diet, however, if you eat more than your body can use it will also get stored as fat. Sugar has its place but can play with your energy levels and high sugar products are not ideal for anyone with diabetes concerns.

Sodium, or salt, is not so great in high levels – especially if you have high blood pressure. Try to opt for products with lower sodium content.

Labels should also have an ingredients list somewhere close to the nutrition label. This is ordered by scale starting with the main ingredient (in this case, reconstituted fruit juice) and ending with the ingredient that is the smallest (glazing agent).

How to compare one product to another

Usually the best way to compare products is to go by the column that shows the nutrition information per 100 grams.

It’s also good to take into account the serving size of the product (especially if it’s something that is already divided into portions) as one product may have a larger serving size than another. As an example, if you’re comparing a muesli bar that is a 40g serving versus one that is 80g, the larger bar may seem healthier in the per 100g comparison but you’ll be eating double the serving of the smaller bar.

Key things to remember when out shopping

  • Generally, try to choose products with less than 10g of fat per 100g and less than 10g of sugar per 100g. This will vary depending on what type of product you’re buying – for example, breakfast cereals containing fruit which can contain a fair bit of natural sugars should have less than 25g of sugar per 100g.
  • Sugar has many other names so be wary… sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose. maltose, dextrose, golden syrup, corn syrup, malt, honey and molasses. Whew!
  • If the ingredient list has fat, sugar or salt near the top then it will likely contain large amounts of these and may not be so healthy for you.
  • If the nutritional info has a line for ‘fibre’, try to opt for cereals, pasta and breads with more than 3g of fibre per serve.

Practice makes perfect, so give it a go and let us know if you run into any problems or questions!

Photo / FreeDigitalPhotos.net – Ambro

Article brought to you by NZ Real Health

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