How to read Food Labels...

“Nutrition labels should include a “What if I ate the whole damn thing” section.”

Now first off, the majority of the food you should be consuming should NOT have a label. Fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, nuts & seeds rarely have food labels because they are 100% of what they are meant to be! Anything with a label has been processed and packaged and can potentially have a number of additional ‘additives’ or ‘preservatives’ to create a longer shelf life and allow for a more efficient transit from origin to your supermarket to your fridge and cupboard to your body!

Just because something has a label doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy but I think it is very important to understand as much as we can of what is actually in our food and what the food label is telling us. Relying on the 5 star health rating system can also be misleading. Taken directly from the 5 Star Health Rating system website; “The Health Star Rating is a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. It provides a quick, easy, standard way to compare similar packaged foods. The more stars, the healthier the choice.” However when this 5 star system rates Milo (which is 50% sugar) 4.5 stars out of 5 you really need to question is validity and usefulness. According to Professor Mark Lawrence, from Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, "The core, fundamental problem of the health star rating system is that it doesn't differentiate between whole foods and junk foods”. The health star rating system looks to only compare foods of the same product range, e.g. comparing one particular yoghurt brand with another, rather than providing an overall rating of the products health benefits and whether it should be part of your regular diet.

To make things more confusing, nutritional claims made by some products such as ‘light’, ‘no cholesterol’, ‘baked not fried’ or ‘fresh’ may not mean exactly what they want you to think. There is legislation in place to control nutrition claims on labels which you can find here:, however it is important to know a few things before you buy, here are some interesting facts from the Better Health Channel Victoria:

·         The claims ‘no cholesterol’, ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’ on foods derived from plants, like margarine and oil, are meaningless because all plant foods contain virtually no cholesterol. However, some can be high in fat and can contribute to weight gain if used too generously.

·         The term ‘light’ or ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is low in fat or energy. The term ‘light’ may refer to the texture, colour or taste of the product. The characteristic that makes the food ‘light’ must be stated on the label.

·         If an item claims to be 93 per cent fat free, it actually contains 7 per cent fat, but it looks so much better the other way.

·         ‘Baked not fried’ sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat – check the nutrition information panel to be sure.

·         ‘Fresh’ actually means the product hasn’t been preserved by freezing, canning, high-temperature or chemical treatment. However, it may have been refrigerated and spent time in processing and transport.

For a manufacturer to make various claims, their products must meet various guidelines including:

·         no added sugar – products must not contain added sugar, but may contain natural sugars

·         reduced fat or salt – should be at least a 25 per cent reduction from the original product

·         low fat – must contain less than 3 per cent fat for solid foods (1.5 per cent for liquid foods)

·         fat free – must be less than 0.15 per cent fat

·         percentage of fat – remember 80 per cent fat free is the same as 20 per cent fat, which is a large amount

·         good source of – must contain no less than 25 per cent of the RDI for that vitamin or mineral.

Understanding yourself what is in the foods you are eating is really important to get around the marketing jargon and tricky word play from various businesses trying to persuade you to buy their products, as well as not relying on a flawed health star rating system that doesn’t differentiate between wholefoods and junk foods full of sugar!

Breaking down the food label...

The food label usually contains information about the name of the product, the suppliers contact name and address, country of origin, date marking including the use by or best before date, an ingredient list, the nutritional information panel, quantity information, health star ratings, warnings etc. The main two I want to focus on are the ingredient list and nutritional information panel.

The ingredient list is your main guide to what is in the food product. Ingredients must be listed by weight from greatest to smallest, so the first ingredient on the list has the highest weight quantity in the food product. Some food will also have percentages of characterizing ingredients. My recommendation here is, if you don’t recognize a particular ingredient, either look it up or probably better, put it back on the shelf. Fewer ingredients are always best. When comparing products, try to find the food that contains the highest percentage of characterized ingredients, e.g. a high percentage of the main ingredient, chickpeas in hummus can range from 50% to 80%. It is also important to note that not all ingredients will be listed in common terms. For example if you are trying to limit your sugar intake (which you should be) then watch out for foods containing brown sugar, corn syrup, de-ionised fruit juice, dextrose, disaccharides, fructose, fruit juice concentrate/fruit paste, glucose, golden syrup, honey, lactose, malt, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, monosaccharides, raw sugar, sorbitol, sucrose, xylitol. All these are just other forms of sugar!!

The nutritional information label (NPI) is a very useful tool if you’re tracking your macros. I recently bought a 1kg tub of hummus (love it) so I’m going to use that as a guide. At the very top of the label it will usually state the SERVING SIZE and SERVINGS PER CONTAINER/PACKAGE. On my tub of hummus the serving size is 20g and servings per package are 50. On this label it outlines nutritional data based on the serving size suggested and PER 100 grams. Most labels will do this as well. The per 100g measurement is great to compare different foods. So this is the nutritional breakdown of my tub of hummus per serving (20 grams):

-          ENERGY – 216 kilojoules (1080kJ/100g)

o   Energy refers to total calories and if it is stated in kilojoules you can simply multiply it by 0.24 to work out the calories. Because we want to focus more on macros this number isn’t really relevant.

-          PROTEIN – 1.5 grams (7.6g/100g)

o   Foods high in protein will generally keep us fuller for longer.

o   1 gram of protein is equal to 4 calories.

-          FAT, TOTAL – 3.6 grams (18.1g/100g)

o   Sometimes fat information is broken down by type. It’s not necessary to track all types of fats but can be useful. You want to stay away from foods with Trans fats, for example.

o   1 gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.

-          CARBOHYDRATE – 3.1 grams (15.6g/100g)

o   This can also be broken down into dietary fibre and sugars. 1 gram of carbs is equal to 4 calories.

o   As a general rule look for products that have less than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams. (MY HUMMUS – Less than 1 gram (2.6g/100g))

o   Foods higher in fibre (3-6 grams per serve) are great in slowing down absorption and keeping you fuller for longer.

o   Some food labels will also contain the gluten in foods; generally if they are bragging that they contain 0mg!

-          SODIUM – 93mg (467mg/100g)

o   This refers to how much salt is in the food product. “Low salt” is less than 120mg per 100g but generally foods with less than 300-400mg are fine.

Don’t worry about the % daily value. That’s based off a 2000 calorie diet, doesn’t apply to everyone and it’s pretty much useless information anyways.

So let’s say I ate 50 grams of hummus (2.5 times the serving size and approx 2 Tbsp, maybe a little more). Simply doing a little math I can calculate my macros consumed:

-          50 grams/20 grams per serving = 2.5 of a serving.

-          2.5 x 1.5g protein = 3.75 grams protein

-          2.5 x 3.6g fats = 9 grams fats

-          2.5 x 3.1g carbs = 7.75 grams carbs

So from a block perspective I have eaten 3 blocks fats, plus almost 1 block carbs and ½ a block of protein.

When it comes to food labels it is best to understand as much information as possible and if you are not sure, do some research, or better yet stick to the foods that have NO FOOD LABELS. More fruit, veg, meats, fish, nuts & seeds, more WHOLE, SINGLE INGREDENT FOODS!


Coach Jared