The art of reading food labels

Our supermarket shelves are filled with thousands of products, many of them claiming to be healthy. We’ll help you make sense of the label information overload, so you can make healthier choices for your family. There's even a free app which can do it all for you.

What information do food labels contain?

By law, all food products need certain information on their labels, including:

  • product name
  • brand name
  • ingredient list
  • nutrition information panel (NIP) 
  • use-by date
  • manufacturer details
  • product weight or volume

There are however some instances where manufactured foods might not require an NIP.

What information is key?

According to Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff, both the ingredient list and the NIP contain the most information.

“The ingredient list will probably give you the best idea as to the nutrient quality of the product,” she says.

“If you can see natural foods in the list, it’s more likely to be a healthier option. More numbers and words in the list can often mean it’s much more processed.”

Cosgriff says ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity. That means the first ingredient on the list is the greatest by weight, and the ingredient listed last is the smallest by weight. As well as giving you an idea of the nutritional benefits of the product, the ingredient listing is extremely useful in identifying ingredients you may be allergic to.

In addition to the ingredient list, Cosgriff recommends reading the ‘per 100g’ column in the NIP when comparing two similar products. For example, if you are comparing which product has less sugar, look at the per 100g and compare the values.

If you just don’t have the time or the energy to analyse labels, a useful tool is Bupa’s free FoodSwitch App, which can analyse it for you and help you make healthier choices, with one quick scan of the barcode.

Nutrition content claims and health claims

Many products make claims such as ‘low-fat’, ‘low-salt’, and ‘contains no added sugar’. These are known as nutrition content claims and can provide useful information. However, they can also be a little misleading.

For example, some marshmallows packaging contains claims they are ‘99% fat free’. While this is true, the food is very high in sugar and so they are not a healthy choice.

Cosgriff says nutrition content claims are about the content of certain nutrients or substances in a food, and these claims need to meet certain criteria set out by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

Should I take note of these claims?

When it comes to nutrition content claims, it’s worth knowing what each means. For example: 

  • Low in fat = no more than 3g of fat per 100g (or 1.5g per 100ml liquid)
  • Fat free = no more than 0.15g per 100g
  • Low in salt = no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g
  • Low in sugar = no more than 5g of sugar per 100g (or 2.5g per 100ml liquid)
  • High in fibre = must contain at least 3g of fibre per serve.

While the claims that brands make about their product can be helpful, they should not be read in isolation. For example, a food may be low in fat but high in sugar. Or, a food may contain ‘no added sugars’ but still be a high-sugar food.

Taking in all this information can be a little overwhelming at first, but, with a little practice, and the help of the FoodSwitch App, it will become second nature, making it easier to choose healthier food products.

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