Do you really know how to decode food labels?

With a new survey finding two in five Australian women don’t know the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables, we turn to Lucinda Hancock, CEO at Nutrition Australia, for her advice on how to decode those confusing food labels and make the right choices.

We’re living in an age where Australian women are looking to take more control over their health and nutrition than ever before. But according to a new survey by Bayer, we’re struggling to not only choose the right foods but to know when we’re being sold an empty promise by marketers.

According to the survey, almost one in five Australian women are trying to be more healthy with the aspiration of looking good, with 66 per cent of us turning to social media and the internet to find information on how to eat more nutritious food and live healthier lives.

Despite our best intentions, 83 per cent of Australian women can’t recognise the healthiest cooking oil and one in two Australian women don’t realise ‘low fat’ labelled foods actually have a higher level of sugar than ‘full fat’ alternatives.

One-fifth of Australian women also incorrectly believe fruit and green vegetables provide our bodies with the most long-lasting energy, while two in five of us think spinach is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which isn't the case.

So how can we decode those misleading food labels and increase our health in the process? Lucinda shares her advice.

The front of the product

There are many different food claims and statements made by manufacturers on food labels. But what's the basis of these claims and what do they really mean?

Reduced fat vs. low fat

A ‘reduced fat’ label indicates the product contains 25 per cent less fat than the reference product.

For example, a ‘reduced fat’ tasty cheese contains 25 per cent less fat than the regular fat tasty cheese of the same brand. Be wary though, as products labelled ‘reduced fat’ could still be relatively high in fat, as this claim is simply based on a comparison to the regular product.

In contrast, a ‘low fat’ claim means the product cannot contain more than 3g of fat per 100g for a solid food or 1.5g per 100mL for a liquid.

Reduced salt vs. low salt

Claims around salt content are similar to those around fat.

A ‘reduced salt’ chicken stock contains at least 25 per cent less salt than the regular chicken stock of the same brand, but a ‘low salt’ product will contain no more than 120mg per 100g for a solid food or 120mg per 100ml for a liquid.

Good vs. excellent sources of dietary fibre

Products product labelled ‘good’ sources of dietary fibre must provide at least 4g of fibre per serve. If a product is an ‘excellent’ source of dietary fibre, it must contain a minimum of 7g of dietary fibre per serve. To give some context, women require 25g of dietary fibre daily, while men need 30g daily.

The back of the product

The back of a food label also contains a lot of information about the product, some of which can be difficult to decode.

‘Use by’ and ‘best before’ dates

Some products have a ‘used by’ date, while others have a ‘best before’ date. It’s important to pay attention to this as these two date stamps are actually very different.

Products with a ‘used by’ date shouldn’t be eaten after this date as they may not be safe to eat and cannot legally be sold after this date.

On the other hand, a food past its ‘best before’ date should be safe to eat soon past the specified date, but the item is likely to have lost some quality in taste.

Nutrition information panel and serving size

The nutrient information panel shows the nutrient content of the product, both per serve and per 100g.

Food manufacturers can decide the serving size of their product and it’s important to be mindful that this may not always match the amount you actually eat.

A packet of chips, for example, may be considered two serves by the manufacturer but in reality the whole packet is usually eaten is one sitting.

The ‘per 100g’ column provides consumers with an easy way to compare products. If you wanted to compare the sugar content of two different muesli bars, look for the amount of sugar in the ‘per 100g’ column, to see which is lower. The serving sizes of the muesli bars are likely to be different, so you often can’t make an accurate comparison using this information.

Ingredient list

Lengthy ingredient lists are often intimidating and contain ingredients you do not recognise, but there are a few helpful tips to bear in mind.

Individual ingredients in the list must be displayed in descending order of the ingredient’s weight in the product. This means the first couple of ingredients make up a significant proportion of the product, while the last few ingredients are added in smaller amounts.
 

Sugar

Many consumers are concerned about food labelling when it comes to sugar. A nutrient information panel will show you the amount of sugar in the product and the value includes both the natural sugar and the added sugar in the product.

A great example of this is yoghurt, which contains natural sugar in the form of lactose and is likely to also contain added sugar from the food manufacturer. As the sugar value on the nutrient information panel only shows the combined total of natural and added sugars, there is, unfortunately, no easy way to know how much of this is natural and how much is added.

Instead, you can turn to the ingredients list. If ‘sugar’ is listed anywhere in the ingredients list then you know this yoghurt does, in fact, have added sugar.

Remember when looking at products that ‘sugar’ can be listed as another name, such as glucose syrup, agave syrup or treacle. You can then consider the position of ‘sugar’ in the list: If it’s listed as one of the first few ingredients then you know there is a considerable proportion of added sugar and may not be the best choice.

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