Hands up if you’ve ever found yourself standing in the middle of a supermarket aisle, attempting to decode the nutrition label of a food product? Yep, thought so.
Because on the front, the crackers say they’re 100% natural. But does that make them better or worse than the crackers that are 98% fat free?
And there’s sugar in the ingredients list, is that really so bad? What is glucose – is that the bad one? And how much energy is too much energy? And why are all the numbers so SMALL?
Happily, we’re here to help.
This is your cheat-sheet to understanding food labels so that you can make informed choices about what you buy at the shops, without having to resort to Google all the time.
1. Food label rules
– Name and description of the food (so: original-flavoured Vitaweats)
– Identification of the lot number (food recall information)
– Name and Australian street address of the supplier of food (food recall information)
– List of ingredients
– Date mark (i.e. your “best before”)
– Nutrition information panel (also known at the NIP)
– Country of origin of the food
– Warning and advisory statements (i.e. your “may contain traces of egg”, etc/)
Most of the above is relatively straightfoward. What leads to the great majority of confusion is the nutrition information panel. And there’s also a bunch of things you should probably know about the ingredients list – so that’s what we’re going to go through this afternoon. Buckle in, kids.
2. The ingredients list
The ingredients list, quite obviously, is a list which includes every single item contained within the product.
All the ingredients in the food are listed in order of their weight. So – if sugar is one of the first ingredients listed, you can quite safely assume that the product contains a fair bit of sugar.
Additionally, if a particular ingredient is highlighted on a product, the Code requires that a percentage must be included next to that ingredient – to show the PROPORTION of the ingredient. So, for example, if you purchase yourself some peach juice, the ingredients list will tell you how much peach is actually in that peach juice.
All additives will also be listed on the ingredients list. These might be preservatives, or they might be additives that improve the taste or appearance of a processed food.
You can go here for a complete list of additives in Australia – there are both numerical and alphabetical lists available. It’s good to educate yourself about the different names and numbers that a particular additive might have, especially if you have any intolerances.
Generally, it’s good to go for products where the list of ingredients is relatively short, and where the ingredients are also recognisable.
3. The nutrition information panel
Most foods will have nutrition information panels on the packaging. Some foods are exempt – herbs/spices, mineral water, tea, coffee, unpackaged foods (e.g. veggies) and foods made and packaged at the point of sale (eg. bakery bread).
The panels have information about the amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium (i.e. salt) in the food, plus any other nutrients that the particular food might claim. So, if your cheese sticks claim that they’re a great source of calcium, then the amount of calcium must also be shown in the panel.