How to read labels for healthier choices
I’m sure you all know how to read labels for the ‘Gluten Free’ side of things, but about for the ‘Be Well’ side of things? This is a topic which surprises many of my clients for various reasons. If you can learn to read labels for healthier choices then you can learn to ignore all the marketing hype used to get you to buy the product, so can buy on health merit and price creating you a Win/Win.
Please check with your health professional before making any changes based on this information as it’s provided at a population level and doesn’t take your personal requirements into consideration.
The only items of interest on any food label should be the Ingredients Listing and the Nutritional Information Panel. Please ignore all the other words and illustrations other than perhaps the Crossed Grain logo, the Glycemic Index logo, the Heart Foundation Tick and the words ‘Gluten Free’. Saying that not all products have the logos concerned, so you may be missing out on a good one if you don’t learn to read the labels yourself.
And it’s not a lot to remember! Just two easy steps.
Step 1 – Look at the first three to four ingredients, noticing sources of fat and sugar.
Step 2 – To compare products, use the ‘Quantity per 100g’ column. Look for:
Total Fat at less than 10g/100g (except for margarine, nuts & seeds and avocado)
Saturated Fat at less than 2g/100g
Sodium to be less than 125mg/100g (up to 400mg/100g in some products such as stocks, breads, savoury crackers and sauces)
Fibre to be as high as possible (amount depends on the product)
Ingredients are listed based on the one with the greatest amount first on a sliding scale down to the least amount last. As well as checking for ingredients we want to avoid (eg gluten containing ingredients) we want to know that the product has less fat, sugar and salt.
It’s important to always check this first so you can see what the sources of the fat are as well the quality of the carbohydrates in the product (hopefully low-GI).
Why the ‘Quantity per 100g’ column?
The reason we look at the ‘Quantity per 100g’ is that the other column on Nutrition Information Panels is per serve, and you’ll find that serve sizes are different depending on the manufacturer. The serve you choose to have may also be different to serve size they suggest, so the per 100g column effectively gives you a percentage of a nutrient within that product.
You may ask what should we look for in carbohydrates and sugars?
Quality is more relevant to consider when it comes to the carbohydrate in products when label reading. This is when the glycemic index of the product should be considered.
The word ‘sugar’ on a nutrition information panel can be misleading as it really depends on where the sugar has come from and what type of sugar it is. That’s why we look for the word ‘sugar’ as one of the first 3-4 ingredients, rather than at the amount of sugar per 100g on the nutrition information panel. Perhaps one day, with increased consumer demand, that ‘sugar’ listing on the nutrition information panel will be swapped with a glycemic index number or rating to help us make better choices. Wouldn’t that be helpful?!
Some cracking examples
Here are a couple of labels off two different cracker packets. I’ve chosen two extremes to make it easy for you to spot the differences, but you’ll notice that they’re both higher in sodium than is recommended. Personally I’d rather you chose a piece of your favourite low-GI GF bread, toasted and cut into cracker like squares.
What about if the fat levels are high, but there’s no fat/oil listed in the ingredients list?
If you look at a breakfast cereal for example that has nuts as one of the first three ingredients you may see that the total and saturated fat levels may be higher than the recommended 10g/100g and 2g/100g respectively, but if there’s no other source of fat listing on the ingredients list then you’re okay to know that the fat has come from the nuts which contain a mixture of types of fats but are good for us, so you’d know that was healthy to choose.
Another example here is this dip which tells us that 70% of the dip is made from avocado and chickpeas (two deliciously healthy products) with another good ingredient, lemon juice in at ingredient number 3, and then vegetable oils (specified as Canola and Olive oils which we know are higher in monounsaturated fats so are good for heart health) in at ingredient number 4.
So it’s not entirely surprising that with the avocado at 60% and the oils in position 4, the total fat and saturated fat levels are above our target of 10g/100g and 2g/100g respectively. But it’s okay as we know that it’s good natural products made from mostly good fats (monounsaturated).
In summary, it’s important to always read the ingredients listing first before moving onto the nutrition information panel as it provides you with greater decision making ability. And there’s really only 3 numbers to remember:
Total fat at less than 10g/100g
Saturated fat at less than 2g/100g
Sodium at less than 400mg/100g
Please remember that it’s important that you check with your health professional before making changes, and I highly recommend a personalised consultation with an Accredited Practising Dietitian .
Sally is the owner of her private practice, Marchini Nutrition , has had type 1 diabetes for close to 40 years and coeliac disease for many years too. She is also Social Media Dietitian with Diabetes Counselling Online , and the dietitian on The Moon and You App and works on ‘ Be Well Gluten Free ’ in her spare time. Personalised consultations, either face-to-face or by Skype, are available by request through Marchini Nutrition .