Food Label Reading 101
Food packaging labels and nutrition information can be very confusing and difficult to decipher for the consumer. Here are some basic details to help wade through the information so you can understand it all.
What you commonly find on food packaging
- The Ingredients List: All packaged food must include a list of ingredients. This list is written in descending order that is, starting with the most abundant ingredient and working down to the ingredient present in the smallest amount. You can often tell something about the nutritional value of a food by examining this list of ingredients. This is a good way to identify any added fats, sugars, salt and preservatives.
- The Nutrition Information Panel or Nutrition Facts table lists all nutrients and their quantities. Information is given in grams per serve, grams per 100g, or percentage, in the food.
- Percentage or per 100g – is a useful standard when comparing similar food products
- Serve size – indicates a standard serve size for that product, compare this to your own serve, and you can use it to calculate your own intake
- Energy, protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber and fats are the core nutrients listed
- Different minor nutrients can be listed and is variable depending on what is contained in the food.
- Food claims, which highlight something about the food that would be appealing to consumers. There are certain regulations that countries put in place around what is allowed, and here is a list of common ones to find and their general meaning. They do have the ability to be misinterpreted though, so be careful, and check what it really means to your daily intake.
- Other star rating systems can also be found on packaging of many foods, which vary between countries.
Tips for deciphering a label when looking for healthy options
- When looking at fat content, generally look for packaged products with less than 10g / 100g, as well as products that are low in saturated fat. Exceptions to the 10% rule include;
- Milk & Yogurt: 2g / 100g or less
- Cottage & Ricotta Cheese: 5g / 100g or less
- Other Cheese: 15g / 100g or less
- Margarine: 55g / 100g or less, or one based on unsaturated fats
- Nuts & Oils: higher amounts accepted provided saturated fat is low
- When looking at carbohydrate amounts, there are two categories, total and sugars. The sugars component indicates the amount of sugar in the food, including naturally occurring fruit and milk (lactose) sugars. Aim for 15g / 100g or less. Exceptions include;
- Products that contain dried fruit: 25g / 100g or less is acceptable
- When looking at dietary fiber, choose foods with higher % fiber content when comparing products. Foods with generally a higher fiber content include wholegrain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, and good levels are 7.5g / 100g and higher.
- Certain foods are naturally low in sodium and 120mg /100g or less is healthy, but for certain foods that are naturally higher in sodium 400mg / 100g is acceptable.
What about the fruit and vegetables?
Obviously it is difficult to read labels in the fresh produce section, because fresh fruits and vegetables don’t have labels! But if you think outside the box, you can use the tinned or frozen vegetable section to discuss the differences between fresh, and highlight the positives and negatives of using all the different varieties to increase vegetable consumption on the whole. Similarly tinned and frozen fruits can be included to do the same. Most other foods have labels.
- Details of the US FDA Nutrition labeling and Education Act
- Food label reading exercise — an exercise to learn to read a food label to help you identify what nutrients are in foods.
- Health and Nutrition Educational Resources
- Healthy Eating
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