Exactly how to decode nutritional labels. And the five ingredients to watch out for.

Before you head to the shops, it’s a good idea to learn how to read nutrition labels to ensure that you’re informed about what your family is eating.

Clever marketing means that it’s easy to miss nasties like MSG and sugar hiding behind another name. Add to that, the fact that potentially harmful preservatives are in some products, and it’s easy to see why there is so much confusion around making healthy choices.

This is a topic that I’m incredibly passionate about and something that I’m always eager to alert my clients to. Understanding nutrition labels will allow you to make the best decision about what belongs in your trolley and what’s best left on the shelf – it doesn’t need to be daunting either!

Interpreting nutrition labels is something I go into a great deal of depth in my book, Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook, along with detailed information about how to identify hidden nasties.

What you’ll see when you flip the back of your food packages, is that nutrition labels come in two parts – the ingredients list, which consists of all the ingredients in a product, and the nutritional panel, which gives you a breakdown of nutrient values.

Learning how to read both of these will empower you at the supermarket and let you take control of your family’s health. Let’s take a look at both of these.

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How to read an ingredients list

Becoming label savvy and understanding an ingredients list will help you know exactly what you’re putting in your body.

First things first, the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so put simply, the first listed ingredient makes up the most of that product. It’s good to look out for sugar, sodium or any ingredient that’s written as a number here, and if it’s high on the ingredients list, leave it on the shelf!

I’d also recommend keeping an eye out for percentages next to the main ingredients, which are helpful in allowing you to compare products for the higher quality versions.

Often, some ingredients can be disguised with other scientific names or broken up into smaller parts so as to not appear high on the list. Sugar and salt are most popular for this, so here’s what to also keep an eye out for:

Sugar

Did you know, there are over 50 different names for the sweet stuff?

The most common ones to look out for are ‘sugar’, ‘glucose’, ‘fructose’ and ‘sucrose’. Remember, while small amounts of natural sugar as an occasional treat is okay, try and avoid sugars in your everyday foods.

Salt

While salt and sodium are essential for the body to absorb other nutrients, too much of it can put stress on growing bodies and increase blood pressure in both children and adults.

Some kids consume more than 75 per cent of their recommended salt intake every day from it being hidden in processed foods. Keep your eyes peeled for the names ‘salt’ and ‘sodium’ on packaging and even try and look for ‘reduced salt’ labelling.

Navigating a nutritional panel

nutrition labels
Have any idea how to decode this? Us either. Image: Supplied.

I go into depth in my book about how to break down the nutritional panel, however, I advise to look at the ‘per 100g’ values, as ‘per serve’ can often be misleading if you’re likely to eat more than the suggested serving size.

The ‘per 100g’ column is also the most useful for comparing products to assess their sugar, protein, sodium and fat content.

When looking at the nutritional panel, my advice is to choose products with less than 5g of sugar per 100g and less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.

I have a whole chapter in my book dedicated to the hidden nasties I try and avoid, but here are the top five additives I look out for on nutritional labels:

1. GMOs

Genetically modified organisms are ingredients that have been altered in a laboratory in order to become easier to grow and maintain.

In Australia, it’s not currently required for manufacturers to label when genetically modified ingredients have been used, but personally, I try to avoid GMOs as I’m concerned about the long-term damage on growing bodies and immature immune systems.

While avoiding these ingredients can be quite hard, your best bet is to keep processed foods to a minimum and cook from scratch using seasonal, local produce, or look out for ‘Non-GMO’ labels.

2. Food colouring

Artificial food colourings are popular in ice-cream, confectionary and icings and have been banned in many countries for contributing to hyperactive behaviour in children. But, they’re easy to avoid!

Reach for foods with the label ‘no artificial colouring’ and try natural colourings like beet powder, saffron and turmeric instead. In fact, in my book I feature my incredibly popular Natural Rainbow Cake recipe that uses absolutely no artificial colourings!

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3. MSG

MSG is short for monosodium glutamate and is a popular flavour additive which gives food a savoury flavour, but it can often cause digestive issues for kids and even headaches and tiredness.

It’s normally found in pre-made soups, stocks, sauces and artificially flavoured foods like crackers.

My best advice to avoid this nasty is to cook from fresh as much as possible. My book has a wide range of delicious yet simple marinades and dips that the whole family will enjoy – without the nasties. Try my homemade tomato sauce and veggie packed pasta sauce recipes!

4. Propionate

Ever wondered why you can leave bread on the bench for 10 days without it going mouldy?

That all comes down to this preservative which is most commonly found in bread and other baked goods to stop bacteria growth.

Consuming too much propionate can lead to irritability, disturbed sleep and poor attention amongst little ones. Why not bake your own bread? Check out my super simple Gluten-Free Yoghurt Bread on page 55 of my book or read up on my top tips to buying supermarket bread.

5. Nitrates and nitrites

These are other preservatives which are found in processed meats and pickled veggies to help extend their shelf life and decrease bacteria growth.

However, eating too many of these preservatives are likely to cause irritable bowel and according to the American Cancer Society, increase the risk of stomach cancer.

To avoid these nasties, I’d recommended minimising the amount of cured and processed meat you eat and stick to organic, fresh meat instead. Many packages are labelled ‘nitrate or nitrite free’ to make your shopping trip a little bit easier.

Some of my most popular simple and nutritious Wholesome Child meat dishes include Beef and Veggie Meatballs, Lamb Koftas as well as my flavoursome and comforting Coconut Lamb Meatloaf.

Visit the Wholesome Child website to learn more about Mandy Sacher. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes. Connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.

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