Nutrition | POSTED August 28, 2020

Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

Do you need help making sense of nutrition labels?

Making sense of nutrition labels can be overwhelming. However, having basic knowledge of nutrition labels can help you to understand what matter when making healthier choices. It can also help to determine what to filter out.

If you’re in Australia, it’s mandated by law that all manufactured foods include a nutrition information panel and ingredients list [1]. This panel is a useful tool for taking control of your health. But sometimes everything else on the label overshadows what’s on the panel.

Some products have terms and information used for marketing, which can be easily misinterpreted. In fact, research shows that simply adding health claims on packaging can lead people to think they’re healthier than the same product without the claims [2]. Remember, just because a product makes certain nutrition claims doesn’t mean it is healthy [3].

When reading nutritional labels, it’s important to relate them to your individual nutritional needs. Some labels list nutrients as a percentage of daily nutrient intake as “daily value” or RDI (Recommended Daily Intake). The Recommended Daily Intake is based on what an average adult needs (at an 8700 kJ or 2080 calories)[4]. Treat the percentage values as general advice only. They are not specific to your own individual dietary requirements or goals.

When making decisions about processed foods, there are 5 key points you should prioritise.

1. Serving Size

The serving size is listed in a standardised unit, such as grams, and tells you how much the food business has determined a serving of a product should be [5]. The recommendations on the packaging might be more or less than your own serving size. It is also very easy to assume that one packet equals one serve, but this is not always the case.  Especially with individually packaged items.

2. Energy

Every nutrition label will contain a unit of energy. It’s listed as Kilojoules (kJ) or Calories (kcal) per serve and usually per 100g. You can use the “per 100g” column to compare the nutrition data to different products. The amount of energy is a direct calculation from the macronutrient content, found further down the label.

3. Macronutrients

Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in larger amounts in order to function properly. These are protein, carbohydrates and fat and each is important as it is used by the body for a different purpose [6]. Daily requirements of these nutrients will vary between individuals and will be dependent on a number of factors. These factors include gender, age, weight, activity level and current body composition goal.

4. Fibre

Fibre is a central component of a healthy diet. It is important for keeping your intestinal tract healthy and will reduce your risk of chronic disease. Despite this, as much as two-thirds of Australians don’t hit their RDI of fibre [7]. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises an adequate intake of 30g for adult males and 25g for adult females. This adequate intake is just that – adequate. Consider it to be your minimum target. While NHMRC has no set upper level of intake of fibre, if too much is consumed without enough water, it can cause abdominal discomfort or constipation [8]. We recommend capping your fibre intake at around 50-60g per day.

5. Ingredients

As far as body composition goes, the list of ingredients isn’t as important as you may think. You will find a list of ingredients on the label, in order from largest to smallest in quantity. This makes it easy to spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, or have added salt or sugars. The ingredients list is particularly useful for people with food intolerances or allergies. 

If you pay attention to the above five areas when making food choices, you will make healthier choices.

What about the Health Star Rating?

The Health Star Rating system provides nutritional information at a glance. It rates packaged foods between 0.5 and 5 stars, based on ingredients that increase the risk of obesity and contribute to other chronic diseases [9]. The system is voluntary, and is not without its critics. 

With the Health Star Rating, negative nutritional attributes can cancel or balance out positive ones. What does this mean? A healthy ingredient can be added to increase the Health Star Rating, even if there’s a high sugar content. The rating is also calculated on an “as prepared” basis, which means it takes into account the nutritional value of what it is eaten with. For example, Milo came under fire after it displayed a 4.5-star rating. This rating was based on consuming 3 teaspoons of powder with skim milk, not just on the Milo alone, which would have only earned a 1.5 star rating [10].

Other terms you will find on food labels

Terms associated with improved health can be helpful. However, be careful as they could mislead you into thinking unhealthy or processed foods are good for you. Some such terms are [11]:

Light: the product has either been processed to reduce the calorie or fat content, or it has been watered down.

Natural: this simply means the manufacturer worked with a natural source at some point, like apples or rice.

No added sugar: some products might have no added sugar because they are naturally high in sugar.

Low fat: other ingredients such as sugar have been added to compensate for the lower fat content.

Fruit-flavoured: many processed foods refer to a natural flavour, such as a fruit, but might not actually contain any fruit.

Feeling overwhelmed by nutrition labels?

If taking in all this labelling information still seems like a lot for your weekly grocery shop, there is a way around it – eat more whole foods! To conclude, the key to a healthy diet is consuming a balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-rich foods, and the easiest way to do this is by eating mainly unprocessed foods.

If you would like nutritional advice tailored to your personal requirements and goals, book in a consultation today.