Healthy eating habits/Reading Food Labels to Make Healthy Food Choices
Food labels can be difficult to understand, with a great detail of information often included on labels. This guide can help you with reading and understanding food labels so you can make healthier shopping choices.
Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
Most packaged foods will have a nutrition information panel except for small packages such as spices, herbs, tea, coffee, and foods made and packaged at the point of sale e.g. sandwiches made to order.
Look for the following nutrients when comparing similar food products:
(See Figure 1 for a detailed guide on how to read a Nutrition Information Panel)
- Total fat
- Saturated fat
- Sugar (includes a total of added and natural sugars)
- Dietary fibre 
Nutritional Effect on Health
- Choosing foods low in saturated fat and sodium can help you in lowering blood pressure and reduce the amount of ‘bad’ fats building up along the walls of blood vessels. This decreases your risk of having heart diseases .
- Added sugars in packaged foods such as spreads, cereals or biscuits, offer little nutrient value except for being high in energy. Choosing foods low in sugar can help you with weight control and preventing tooth decay .
- Dietary fibre found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and cereals, help with keeping your digestive system healthy. It can also help with controlling diabetes, heart health and weight .
Comparing Similar Food Products
- Use the quantity per 100g column to compare nutrient values.
- Choose the food that is lower in total fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. Use the ‘Nutrition Guide’ (Figure 2) and aim to buy foods within the healthiest (green) or fairly healthy options (amber). Limit or avoid eating food products with nutrients in the least healthy column (red), as they are in very high amounts and do not provide nutritional benefits.
- If dietary fibre is listed in the NIP, while keeping in mind the content of the other four key nutrients, aim for the product with the highest dietary fibre content per serve. Try to select foods that have 3g or more dietary fibre per serve .
Ingredients are listed in order from highest to lowest weight in the food product.
This means the percent of characteristic ingredient(s) within the food. For example, if peach (6%) was listed in the ingredients of peach yoghurt, this means the peach yoghurt is made up of 6% of peaches.
Limit Intake of Added Fats, Sugars and Salt
Limit buying foods if fat, sugar, or salt is listed in the top three ingredients, as often they will be in high amounts in the food. This can be confirmed by looking at the nutrition information panel (See Figure 3).
|FAT||Animal fats/oil, Butter, Coconut, Coconut oil, Copha, Cream, Lard, Mayonnaise, Milk solids, Mono-, di- or triglycerides, Palm oil, Shortening, Vegetable oil and fats.|
|SUGAR||Corn syrup, Dextrose, Disaccharides, Fructose,Glucose, Glucose syrup, Honey, Lactose, Maltose, Mannitol, Molasses, Sorbitol, Sucrose, Xylitol.|
|SALT||Baking powder, Monosodium glutamate or MSG, Sodium, Sodium ascorbate, Sodium bicarbonate, Sodium nitrate/nitrite, Yeast extract, Vegetable salt.|
Nutritional claims may be included on food labels. These claims may have some nutritional benefit for the individual.
Important: Check the nutrition information panel on the package because a food that may claim to be low in a particular nutrient may be higher in another. For example, a food may be ‘low fat’, yet still contain a high amounts of salt.
|Low fat||No more than 3g of fat per 100g in the food product.|
|Reduced fat or salt||25% less fat or salt than the original food product of the same brand. Be sure to check the nutrition information panel, as the product may still be high in fat or salt.|
|% fat free||A claim such as 95% fat free means for every 100g of a food product, there is 5g of fat. Or 99% fat free is the same as 1% fat, or 1g of fat per 100g of the food.|
|No added sugar||There are no added refined sugars, but the product may still contain natural sugars, such as fruit juices.|
|‘Light’ or ‘lite’||This does not always mean low fat or lower in energy. These claims may mean the food is light in taste, colour or texture.|
|Diet||Often this claim means the food has added artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, which makes the product lower in energy (kilojoules) e.g. diet soft drinks.|
|High fibre||For every 100g of the food product, there is at least 3g of fibre.|
For More Information
Visit these websites to learn about other information found on a food label:
- Better Health Channel. (2013). Food Labels. Retrieved from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Food_labels_explained.
- Eat For Health. (2013). How To Understand Food Labels. Retrieved from http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/eating-well/how-understand-food-labels.
- Whitney, E., Rolfes, S., Crowe, T., Cameron-Smith, D., & Walsh, A. (2011). Understanding Nutrition. South Melbourne: Cengage Learning.
- NSW Food Authority. (2013). Nutrition Labelling. Retrieved from http://www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au/consumers/food-labels/label-facts/nutrition-labelling/.
- Cancer Council QLD. (2013). Nutrition and Physical Activity. Retrieved from http://www.cancerqld.org.au/page/prevention/nutrition_and_physical_activity/.
- Diabetes Australia. (2012). Reading Food Labels. Retrieved from http://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/en/NDSS-Content/Diabetes-Information-Sheets/Reading-Food-Labels/.
- Queensland Government. (2009). Guideline for Reading Food Labels [fact sheet]. Retrieved from http://www.health.qld.gov.au/nutrition/resources/paeds_foodlabels.pdf.