Knowing how to read nutrition labels on packaged foods is an invaluable skill to have. Food companies are becoming savvier with marketing techniques that will inevitably lead to you, the customer, to leaving the store with a product you believe to be in line with your health goals, which unfortunately may not be. Today is the day where you learn how to pick out the best products to optimise your health!
Thanks to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), packaged foods must have a label with information on its contents. This needs to include information on food allergies, food additives and food storage instructions.
This is an important row to look at if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight. When it comes to snacks, look for products with less than 600 kJ per serve as a general guide. If a product contains nuts, it may be higher than this due to their healthy fat content. If you’re an active indiviudal or don’t have large meals, you may need a snack closer to 800-900kJ per serve.
If you want to find out how many kilojoules you will actually consume, check the ‘per serve column’. BUT be careful as this is often an area for sneaky marketing. Companies may reduce the serving size so that the product looks healthier than it is. For example, a small pizza that looks as though it’s made for one person may report having 4 serves in it. The ‘per serve’ column may only say 800 kJ, leading the customer to believe that’s what they’re consuming when really, it’s 3200 kJ. Always check the servings per package to see whether your portion size is the same as the serve size.
Serving sizes of similar products may vary. Therefore it’s also important to check the ‘per 100 g’ column when comparing products.
Protein is an important nutrient to include in meals and snacks to keep you satisfied. This is particularly important if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight as it’s going to prevent unnecessary snacking due to hunger. When choosing snacks at the shops, try and choose products with a source of protein and when comparing products look for those with higher protein.
In general, look for products with the lowest amount of saturated fat per 100 g (less than 2-3 g per 100g is ideal). The exception to this is products containing nuts, which will usually have >2-3g saturated fat per 100g, but contain a much higher proportion of unsaturated fat. Consuming high levels of saturated fat can increase our ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and decrease our good HDL cholesterol, leading to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead we want to choose products high in healthy mono or polyunsaturated fats. These have the opposite effects. They also help slow digestion to keep us satisfied and, like protein, can prevent unnecessary snacking and the over-consumption of calories. Products with a higher amount of total fat and little to no saturated or trans fats will be rich in these healthy fats. Packaged sources of healthy fats include natural peanut butter and extra virgin olive oil.
There’s no need to completely avoid sugar. There are a lot of healthy foods which contain natural sugars, like dairy and fruits! However, we want to limit foods with added sugars, as they offer minimial nutritional benefit. When choosing products, look for those with less than 10g sugar per 100 g, or less than 20g per 100g if it contains fruit in the first 3 ingredients. When comparing products choose the one with the least amount of added sugar.
Fibre is an important nutrient for gut health but it also helps slow digestion to keep us full and satisfied. Like protein and healthy fats, this can help with weight loss and weight maintenance. When choosing snacks, look for those containing fibre, like flavoured chickpeas, muesli bars or fruit. For breads and cereals, look for more than 3 g per serve.
Consuming high levels of sodium (salt) can contribute to high blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Look for products with the lowest amount of sodium. Choose products with less than 400 mg per 100 g for a moderate sodium content (although less than 120 mg per 100 g is best!).
Did you know the ingredients list is arranged from greatest to smallest by weight? Avoid products with saturated fat, sodium or sugar listed in the first three ingredients.
If you enjoyed this latest how-to article, we bet you’ll love our guide about how to eat well is just as important as what to eat. And if you want even more advice and ideas, be sure to follow us on Instagram!