Have you ever just stared blankly at a nutrition label trying to figure out what on earth it all means? Yeah, me too.
High in fibre, low in fat, sugar-free, natural, may contain allergens and so on and so on. It’s a freaking minefield. So, here’s a little guide to help you demystify the nutritional information panel (NIP) and the ingredients list.
The majority of packaged foods must feature an NIP. This little table is jam-packed with information. Like, seriously, there’s so much information.
Every NIP lists seven nutrients; energy, protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. However, other nutrients like vitamin C may also be listed if the food product makes a specific health claim.
Now let’s break it down a little further.
NIP’s list the quantity of assorted nutrients per serve and per 100g. Serving sizes vary from product to product (and are often smaller than you would think!). When comparing the nutritional content of similar foods, always focus on the 100g column.
Energy represents the total amount of kilojoules that are released when food and alcohol are digested by the body. As a guide, most labels will state the average recommended daily energy content as around 8700kj. Be aware though that this will vary between sexes, ages, activity level and various other factors.
NIPs express fat in terms of total fat and saturated fat. Total fat is all the saturated fat, unsaturated fat, essential fatty acids and trans-fats in one single serve. For total fat look for less than 10g per 100g and for saturated fat, less than 3g per 100g is recommended. Also aim for less than 30% of total daily energy intake from fat.
Unfortunately for all you sugar lovers out there, sugar should be avoided in large quantities and should be no more than 10-15% of your daily energy intake. When reading an NIP know that less than 5g per 100g of sugar is a little, and more than 15g per 100g is a lot.
Sodium (aka Salt)
Too much sodium in the diet can cause serious health problems. Packaged foods are generally pretty high in sodium regardless of whether or not they taste salty. So, study that NIP carefully, kids and look for products with less than 400mg per 100g.
Ingredients must be listed in order from largest to smallest by weight. So, if you’re hoeing into a wheel of cheese, it’s safe to assume milk will be pretty high on the ingredients list.
Some key ingredients may have a percentage listed next to them. This is so you know how much chocolate is actually in those choc-chip cookies.
A number listed next to an ingredient indicates food additives, colours, preservatives and other nasties – find out more here.
My big rule for reading ingredients lists is if you don’t understand what’s in it – don’t eat it!
Example nutrition label
Watch Out for:
Anyone can use the term “Natural” on food labels, so be wary that natural doesn’t necessarily mean healthy!
“No added Sugar”
This means that products must not contain added sugar, but may still contain naturally occurring sugars. There are literally loads of alternative names for sugar, so brush up on your vocab here.
Low fat products are usually chock-a-block full of sugar to replace the flavour and texture that is lost when fat is removed.
If that’s left you even more confused, check out FSANZ and stick to whole, unprocessed foods where you can. There’s no need to read an NIP when you’re munching on an apple!