Everything You Need To Know About Reading and Understanding Ingredient Lists and Food Labels
In our fast-paced world, many want and need convenience and for most of us, convenience is pre-made and pre-packaged food. For many this has unhealthy connotations, however, there’s plenty of healthy packaged options out there to make your life easier, it’s just knowing how to spot them in a sea of not so great options.
In the hope of helping you make better choices when going for pre-packaged food (in addition to the fresh produce I know you are also having *cough cough*) here’s what you need to know. This post will look at the ingredient list and the nutritional panel and hopefully, by the end of it, you'll have the tools to quickly interpret the information on the packets and decide whether a particular food is worthy of a place in your daily intake, whether it's more of a 'sometimes food' or whether it's something you don't want to have at all.
Now, let's face it, reading food labels is tricky and time-consuming. Food labelling regulations are complex, making it harder for consumers to understand them. This means consumers pay more attention to health claims on the front of the package, which is problematic because these claims are rarely 100% accurate and give you a true representation of the product your buying. As tempting as it is to be pulled in, my advice is to completely ignore claims on the front of the packaging like 'light', 'sugar-free' or 'low fat' and instead learn how to quickly scan and gage a products health status by taking a read of the back.
So, let's start with the ingredients list.
Ingredients are listed in order of weight. This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of.
A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, as they make up the largest part of what you're eating.
If the first 3 ingredients include a type of sugar, hydrogenated oils, salt or saturated fat you can assume that the product is not going to be the healthiest option.
Be aware of different names for ingredients (did you know there are over 50 different names for sugar?!) I’ve listed some of the most common alternative names below
If an ingredient list is longer than two to three lines or has lots of words and numbers you don’t recognise, it’s more than like that the product is highly processed. Ie - not the healthiest option.
So what's my advice? If your buying packaged food, choose products that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients. E.g. if its cereal - oats, almonds and pumpkin seeds, or if its tomato sauce - tomatoes, garlic, herbs.
It's important to be aware of the fact there are many different names for a few key ingredients, which can fool us into thinking something is free or low in a certain ingredient. Manufacturers use this to their benefit by purposely adding many different types of sugar to their products to disguise the actual amount. This happens all the time with sugar. A product might be full of sugar, but if a manufacturer uses 6 different types of sugar, sugar then doesn't rank as highly on the ingredient list, which deceives us unto thinking there isn't much sugar in a product. Sneaky isn't it?!
Other names for ingredients to be aware of:
sugar: glucose, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, galactose, golden syrup, maple syrup, honey, malt, maltose, raw sugar, caster sugar, brown sugar
salt: sodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking powder, yeast extract
saturated fat: lard, copra, palm oil, animal fat, milk solids, vegetable shortening, dripping
Now you know how to suss out an ingredient list, let's move on to the nutritional panel.
1. First things first take a peek at the serving size. What we might go for as a serving isn’t usually what’s represented as serve on the nutritional panel (on a side note: who even are these people that can eat just half a chocolate bar?!)
2. While the energy content (calories) of the food is important, I’m more concerned about my clients understanding the nutritional makeup of a product (ie if it’s high sugar, low fibre etc) that way they understand how that product fits in as part of a balanced lifestyle. For example, being able to go to the supermarket and knowing how to look for a breakfast cereal that’s higher in fibre and lower in sugar. Having said that, when it comes to ‘discretionary foods’ (lollies, chocolate, sweets etc) we recommended having no more than 600kj per serve.
3. Take a quick glance at the nutritional panel (table shown above in the image) and be aware of the following:
* RDI = recommended daily intake
SUGARS (I’m talking about the added ‘free’ sugars and juices here, not those found in whole, fresh fruit)
> 15g sugar per 100g is good
> 10g sugar per 100g is great
An adults RDI is no more than 25g/day
> 400mg per 100g is good
> 120mg per 100g is great
An adults RDI is no more than 920mg/day
Milk and yoghurts >2g per 100g
Other foods >10g per 100g
An adults RDI of fat is around 70g/day
>3g per 100g
An adults RDI of sat.fat is around 20g/day
Not all labels will include fibre, some will highlight other things like vitamins or minerals
But when fibre is there, look for >3g per 100g
An adults RDI of fibre is 30g/day
Hopefully, you know feel more confident about navigating food labels and know what to look for next time you're sussing out a new product.
I also just want to add that this post is about me encouraging you to take a quick glance of the labels on your food and be aware of what you're purchasing. It’s not about excessively counting kilojoules and becoming fixated on nutritional panels, but we do need to be educated in order to be able to make healthier choices.