It's that little box of numbers on the back of packaged food...Do you totally ignore it? Give it a quick glance not really knowing what you're looking at? Spend forever going through the numbers? Do you know what to look for?
This blog will take you through the basics of nutrition labels and hopefully help you make more informed choices when you do your next grocery shop!
A typical nutrition information panel
This image is fairly standard of what you would find on the back of most packaged foods in NZ.
It begins by giving you the number of suggested servings contained within the package and the size of each of these serves. If you multiply these two numbers together, you will get the total size of the package, so in this example, the total package size would be 750g.
It is important to remember that the serving size on any food packaging is just a suggestion, and sometimes, a marketing ploy...Ever seen something like 'Only X number calories per serve' on the front of a package (usually less nutritious options), tricking you into thinking it might be a better option than your thought? If you dig a little deeper, you will often find the suggested serving size is much less than you would normally eat - therefore, when consumed in usual quantities, that food is much higher in energy than it appears. There's a little trick to look out for!
The nutrition panel then goes on to break down the nutritional content of the food in both 'serving size' and 'per 100g' (or 100ml for liquids).
When comparing foods, it is important that we use the 'per 100g' column. This is because serving sizes can differ greatly, even between similar products. Using this column ensures you are accurately comparing the values contained in the two foods.
In NZ, this value is typically given in kJ, rarely in calories (1 calorie = 4.2kJ). This number tells you the total amount of energy you will get from consuming this product - so the total energy value of all the other listed nutrients. So in the example above, if you consume the standard serving size of 50g, you will have eaten 760kJ.
The amount of protein the product contains - for each 50g, this product contains 5.3g of protein. This food wouldn't make a great choice as a main protein source for a meal or snack, but this does not make it a bad choice either. Not all foods need to be 'high protein' to be healthy or worthwhile!
This section is broken into two parts - the total amount of fat contained and how much of this total is saturated fat. So, in the above example, per 50g serving there is 4.9g of fat in total and 0.8g of this is saturated. A food is considered low in saturated fat if it contains around 1.5g or less per 100g, which is the case for the above example.
Fat is NOT bad people! Our bodies need it and we should aim to include a source of healthy fats (nuts and seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, etc) in each of our meals. However, we should try and limit the amount of saturated fat we consume. These types of fats are generally solid at room temperature and come from fatty cuts of meat, dairy and a lot of packaged or mass produced foods. This isn't to say you shouldn't eat these foods, just be mindful of their consumption.
Again, this is broken into two parts - the total amount of carbohydrate and the quantity of this that is sugars. In a 50g serving of this product, there are 29.6g of carbohydrate and 11.4g of this come from sugars. Remember sugars can come from many forms including the white 'added' stuff and more naturally occurring sources such as fruit.
Something you may not know is that fibre is actually a type of carbohydrate too - but one that our body can't break down into sugars to use for fuel. Fibre is useful to our bodies for healthy digestion and bowel movements as well as decreasing our risk of stroke, bowel cancer and Type 2 Diabetes.
Fibre is found in wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, among other things. The above product contains 3.3g of dietary fibre per 50g serving. Foods that contain 5g of more of fibre per 100g are considered to be high in fibre - which the above example does.
The last section on the above example. This tells you the amount of sodium contained in a product, in this case 21mg per serving of 50g. Sodium is found in our food as salt and is required by our bodies to keep the fluids and electrolytes in our bodies balanced. Highly processed foods often contain higher amounts of sodium, so looking for products that contain less than around 120mg of sodium per 100g is a good guide.
The ingredients list
This is the other important part of a food label to have a look at!
Did you know that the ingredients panel lists it's contents in order from greatest to least? So in this brand of vanilla yoghurt, the main ingredient is skim milk.
When looking at this section, most of the time we are looking for a smaller total number of ingredients and predominantly words we can read, also not too many numbers. The numbers relate to additives in the food - things like preservatives, colour or flavourings. The less of all these things, the closest the food is to it's natural state - the ingredients list of an apple for example would be pretty short!
Sticking with the yoghurt example - a good Greek yoghurt contains only milk and live cultures (sometimes cream). You can see that the yoghurt example above contains a lot more than that, including sugars and added preservatives etc. Again, we're not demonising food here, just giving information to enable you to make informed choices!
Having a bit of food knowledge can be of huge benefit when trying to create healthy habits and maintain a balanced lifestyle. While we don't need to be scrutinising every product we purchase, you might find it useful to take a bit of notice next time you shop. Maybe compare a couple of brands and make your decision based on your knowledge and what is best for you, rather than the claims on the packaging.
I hope you've found this helpfu! As always, please reach out if you have any questions or comments - I'd love to help if I can.