Knowing how to read nutrition labels on packaged foods is an invaluable skill to have. Food companies are becoming savvier to marketing techniques that will inevitably lead to you, the customer, leaving the store with a product believed to be in line with your health goals, which unfortunately is not.

Today is the day where you learn how to pick out the best products to optimise your health!

What is a nutrition information panel?

Thanks to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) packaged foods must have a label with information on its contents, including information on food allergies, food additives and food storage instructions.

What to look out for?

Energy

This is an important row to look at if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight. Look for products with less than 600kJ per serve. Most products with more than 600kJ per serve are classified as discretionary foods and should be limited in the diet.

If you want to find out how much 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. I.e. 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 800kJ, leading the customer to believe that’s what their consuming when really, it’s 3200kJ. 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 important to check the ‘per 100g’ column when comparing products.

Protein

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.

Fat

In general, look for products with less than 10g total fat per 100g. You also want to look for products with the lowest amount of saturated fat per 100g (less than 3g is best). Consuming high levels of saturated fat can increase our ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and decrease our good HDL cholesterol leading to 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, prevent unnecessary snacking and 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.

Sugars

There’s no need to completely avoid sugar. There are a lot of healthy foods which contain natural sugars, think dairy and fruits! However, we want to limit foods with added sugars, as these are ‘empty calories’ i.e. they offer no nutritional benefit. When choosing products look for those with less than 15g sugar per 100g (less than 10g is best!). When comparing products choose the one with the least amount of sugar.

Fibre

Fibre is an important nutrient for gut health but 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 i.e. flavoured chickpeas, or fava beans, muesli bars or fruit. For breads and cereals, look for more than 3g per serve.

Sodium

Consuming high levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular events. Look for products with the lowest amount of sodium. Choose products with less than 400mg per 100g (less than 120mg per 100g is best!).

Ingredients

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 (see image above for alternate names).