Reading Food Labels - how do you spot nutrition fact from fiction? Part 1

Part 1

It's time to unlock the secrets of food labelling and on-pack claims and make it easy! Food labels can be extremely confusing so we’ve put together a simple guide explaining the key things to look at when comparing and purchasing products. Find out what nutritional information to look for in part 1 of our two part series….

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While we recommended that most of your diet is made up of whole and less-processed foods (many of which won't carry a food label), packed foods can also be nutritious, convenient and affordable options. However, sometimes food packaging can look as though it’s written in a foreign language, which can make choosing a healthy choice a difficult task. Trying to work out whether a food is a nutritious option can be confusing and food manufactures can sometimes use our confusion to their benefit. So how can you tell if a food is a healthy choice?

Nutritional Information

The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), ingredients list (usually on the back of the packet) and allergen statements are where manufacturers must be accurate and this is your best place to start when it comes to working out whether the on-pack claims are all they are cracked up to be. So, what do we recommend that you look for?

The ingredient list

All ingredients must be listed in descending order of in-going weight. Therefore it can help you to determine the sources of nutrients, such as sugar (and other types of sugar), in your food and how many different ingredients have been added.  While it’s helpful to be able to  recognise as many ingredients as possible, don’t necessarily be alarmed if you don’t know what something is. For example, while ‘ascorbic acid’ may sound alarming, it is commonly known by most of us as ‘vitamin C’. Ascorbic acid is often used in food manufacturing as a preservative.

What to look for on the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)


When looking at the NIP, we recommend that you compare products based on the per 100g (or 100 ml) column, rather than per serve. This is because manufacturers may use different serve sizes between products. Ideally we recommend that LESS IS BEST of the 3Ss. That is choose products which contain the least amount of sugar, sodium and saturated fat per 100g. It also pays to look for products which contain the most fibre.

However, please be aware that this is a guide only and when it comes to selecting foods, it is important to consider the food within the content of your whole diet - ideally the majority of the food you purchase should be whole and minimally processed foods, based on each of the main food groups.

Allergen labelling

By law, allergens (foods which can trigger an allergic reaction) must be indicated on-pack. Food allergens include gluten, milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, egg, fish, crustacea and sulphites. These will generally either be highlighted in bold within the ingredients list, or listed separately under the NIP as ‘This product contains….’. If you have a diagnosed food allergy, it is important to look for your trigger allergen on-pack. Working with a dietitian can help you determine which foods are safe to eat.

What are Health Stars?

Health Stars are a front-of-pack labelling system designed to identify healthier choices within a food category. In simple terms, the more stars a product has the better! The star rating is calculated using an algorithm that takes into consideration a number of positive (protein, fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut, seed and legume content) and negative (energy, sodium, saturated fat and sugar) factors for a particular food. When comparing packaged foods within a food category, it is generally recommended you choose the product with the most stars. However, depending on how a product is formulated, sometimes the positive factors, may ‘mask’ some of the negative factors. For example, some products may achieve a higher star rating, even though they are higher in sugar, because extra fibre or protein may have been added. If in doubt, make sure you check the product’s ingredients list and NIP as well.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you would like to understand more about label reading and how to read food labels, book in to see one of the knowledgable team at ABC Nutrition today.

In part 2 we will explain what the various on-pack health and nutrition claims mean. Watch this space!