health

These are the things to look for on a food label according to a paediatric nutritionist.

While most of us don’t have time to cook everything from scratch, learning to read food labels allows you to see clearly what is a healthier choice. My ultimate aim as a paediatric nutritionist is to help you navigate the Australian supermarket shelves to ensure you choose the most wholesome options available, free of the nasties that are present in many foods.

How do you read a food label?

Identifying hidden nasties in store bought products is something I go into a great deal of depth in my book. My advice for reading food labels is 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.

wholesome doctor
My advice is 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. Image: Supplied.

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.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.

The main ingredient will usually have a percentage next to it, for example in sausages: Beef (65%). This is helpful as it allows you to compare products and look for a sausage that contains a higher percentage of beef (closer to 90%), which means less room for additives and fillers.

If the product contains added water, it must be listed in the ingredient list according to its ingoing weight, with an allowance made for any water lost during processing, e.g water lost as steam.

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how to read labels
The main ingredient will usually have a percentage next to it. Image: Supplied.

Often, 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 the biggest culprits 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 ‘sometimes’ food is OK, try and avoid sugars in your family’s everyday staples.

To determine how much sugar a product contains, look at the 100g column and then find the sugar line (under carbohydrates). A low-sugar product will contain less than 5g of sugar per 100g. A moderate sugar-containing product will have between 5-10g and a high-sugar product will contain more than 10g per 100g.

Sugar includes intrinsic and added sugars. For example, in a squeezie yoghurt with 11g of sugar on the label, 4-5g would be intrinsic (from lactose in milk) and the rest (around 6g) would be added in the form of fruit concentrate or cane sugar.

It can be hard to find products that don’t contain high levels of refined sugar – and it’s hidden in so many items that were once considered healthy such as muesli bars, yoghurt ,vegetable soups and pasta sauce. It’s easy to think that cake, biscuits and ice-cream are the main culprits but it’s the everyday staples that have a big impact on your family’s sugar intake.

Try to introduce homemade versions of your family’s staples such as our Apricot and Coconut Muesli bars, Home-made tomato sauce, Vegetable pasta sauce and Healthy baked beans. If you are lacking in time, aim to replace high sugar products with low sugar alternatives from the store.

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how to read labels
It can be hard to find products that don’t contain high levels of refined sugar. Image: Supplied.

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.

A low-sodium product will contain less than 120g of sodium per 100g. A moderate sugar-containing sodium product will contain 120mg- 600mg of sodium and a high-sodium product will contain more than 600mg of sodium per 100g.

When looking at the nutritional panel, my advice is to choose products with less than 5g of sugar per 100g (if the product contains natural fruit or lactose from milk, cheese or yoghurt the allowance will be higher) and less than 120mg of sodium per 100g. Check out Chapter 8 in the Wholesome Child book for an in-depth look at salt and how to reduce your family’s intake.

Children who crave salt are sometimes lacking in minerals and protein. A great way to transition children of salt-laden store-bought foods is by making healthy version of their favourites like Home-made minestrone soup, Cauliflower pizza base and Cheesy polenta chips. For children who love nuggets, sauces, pizza and burgers, The Wholesome Child book has plenty of healthy recipes for all these and more.

how to read labels
Children who crave salt are sometimes lacking in minerals and protein. Image: Supplied.
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How do I understand the columns on a food label? 

Comparing products to assess their sugar, protein, sodium and fat content may slow your shopping down initially, but over time it will become familiar and it will be far easier to identify healthy options for your family. So let’s take a look at the two most important columns on a nutrition label:

From this nutrition panel, we can see that there are 1560kJ per 100g. There is very little protein at 1.8g per 100g, and 89.4g of carbohydrates. The important thing to note is how much sugar the product contains. In this product there is 25.1g of sugar per 100g, which means that much of the carbohydrate content comes from sugar.

When it comes to sugar, aim for products with less than 5g and no more than 10g per 100g. This product contains hardly any fat and very little fibre. Fibre helps to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream and helps to regulate bowels, look for products containing 3g-6g of fibre.

Finally there is a lot of sodium. As a general rule, ideal foods for children should contain less than 120mg of sodium per 100g. For more information on reading sugar labels and for more information on salt, check out my book.

Not everyone has the time or resources to cook from scratch, but the good news is that there is an abundance of choice out there and it’s just about being able to recognise the better and healthier options which are sitting on the shelves. Once you get your head around a nutrition label you can start to make healthy and informed choices for the whole family.

To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.

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