Label Reading Made Easy

“Low-fat”, “Lite”, “Light”: Come again?

It's time to unlock the secrets of food labelling. Food labels can be extremely confusing so I’ve put together a simple guide explaining the key things to look at when comparing and purchasing products.

Food packaging can look as though it’s written in a foreign language. And those clever marketers can use words and claims that can make any food sound healthy.

Trying to work out exactly what these words mean on-pack, can be confusing and food manufactures can sometimes use our confusion to their benefit. The first tip for you is to question whats written on the front of the packaging- you can do this by looking at the nutritional panel (usually on the back of the packet).

The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)

So, what to look at on the nutritional panel? Only look at the column titled “Per 100 grams”. The “serving size” is chosen by the food manufacturer so can vary greatly from how much of the food you (and other food brands) would consider a serve. By looking at only the “Per 100 grams” column you can compare products, irrespective of serving size.

To simplify things we will only be looking at five key components: Energy, Fat, Sugar, Fibre and Salt.

The word “energy” is one of the most confusing. Energy is measured in kilojoules (kJ) in New Zealand and calories (cal) in the US (similar to kilometres vs. miles). It is the total energy intake that affects a person’s weight. If more energy is put into the body (eating and drinking) than is burnt off (exercise) weight will be gained, no matter what type of diet someone follows.

Introducing the 'less is best' rule:

This is a simple rule to check if the food you are holding is a healthy choice. When comparing products it can get difficult to remember which level of certain nutrients you should be aiming for. By following the 'less is best' rule it makes things easy! Simply choose the products which contain less of the 3 S's - that is those with the lowest amount of Saturated Fat, Sugar and Sodium per 100g. Where possible try to choose foods with the highest amount of fibre.

Light, lite, reduced fat, what?

To ensure that you’re not fooled next time you reach for the ‘lite, reduced fat, baked’ chips, we help explain what all these terms mean.

Light, lite

While many of us may think these terms mean a product is lower in fat, it could in-fact could mean a number of things. Unfortunately use of these words is not regulated so it could mean that the product is lighter in colour or lighter in weight than another product. Not necessarily that it is lower in fat!

Reduced fat

While this sounds great, and certainly we should commend the food manufacturers for lowering the fat levels of a product, it does not necessarily mean that the product contains a healthy level of fat (ie less than 10g per 100g). Reduced fat simply means that the product contains less fat, not that it is low fat.

Cooked in vegetable oil

While most vegetable oil won’t raise your cholesterol or clog your arteries like saturated fat, it still contains the same amount of energy per gram. Therefore, if you are trying to lose weight, you should still be looking for ‘low fat’ products. Also beware; palm oil (which is a vegetable oil) contains almost 50% saturated fat – the bad fat.

Baked not fried

This simply refers to the cooking technique and not whether or not the product is a healthier option

The ingredient list

All ingredients must be listed in descending order of in-going weight. Therefore if you notice fat (butter or oil) or sugar appearing within the first few ingredients you will know that the product will be relatively high in energy and possibly something that you should only have as a treat, very now and again.

% Dietary Intake (%DI)

Percent Daily Intakes are based on the average adults diet of 8700kJ per day. It is therefore not a suitable guide for children or for those who have special nutrients and energy requirements.

‘The Tick’

The Tick is a programme run by the National Heart Foundation of NZ. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to compare nutritional panels then it can be handy when purchasing foods as it highlights healthy options within that category of food. 

Final words...

Remember, there are many foods out there, which may be disguised as ‘health foods’, when in fact they are quite the opposite. One of my personal 'pet peeves' is bliss balls. While these yummy sweet snacks are made from mostly whole foods and natural ingredients. Don't be deceived into thinking these are a healthy, everyday choice. Many are still incredibly high in sugar and may contain as much as a chocolate bar! It's best to keep bliss balls for a treat. The only way to be sure that you’re making a wise choice is to check out the nutritional panel. Don’t worry it gets easier and faster with time!