Reading and Understanding Food Labels
Making healthy food choices can be daunting and at times challenging, especially with so many different types of packaged foods available in today’s market, this can make understanding food labels complicated.
Understanding food labels can be confusing and complicated making it difficult to make healthier choices.
With a bit of knowledge about what to look for, you can understand the information that is listed on food labels and make a more informed decision about what you eat.
Here are some things to keep in mind when reading and understanding food labels.
One of the most important things to look for on a food label is the serving size.
This will give you an idea of how much of the food you should eat in order to stay within your daily calorie and nutrient goals.
Keep in mind that the serving size listed on the label may not match the portion size that you normally eat, so be sure to check the serving size before you buy.
The calorie content of a food is listed in the Nutrition Facts section of the label.
This will give you an idea of how many calories you are consuming with each serving.
Pay attention to the number of calories per serving and keep in mind that many foods contain multiple servings.
When understanding food labels, another important factor to consider when on the food labels is the fat content.
Foods high in fat can contribute to weight gain and increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Look for foods that are low in total fat and saturated fat.
High-sodium diets have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke as mentioned on the National Library of Medicine website.
Pay attention to the amount of sodium in the food you buy and look for foods that are low in sodium.
Fibre is an important nutrient to have in your diet as it helps you feel full and promotes healthy digestion.
Look for foods that are high in fibre, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for good health and should be included in your diet in adequate amounts.
Look for foods that are high in vitamins and minerals, such as leafy greens, fruits, and whole grains.
Understanding food labels includes all the ingredients that are contained within the foods of each product.
Ingredients are listed in order of dominance, so the first ingredient listed is the one that makes up the largest portion of the food.
Remember when reading food labels pay attention to the:
- serving size
- fat content
- vitamins, and minerals
- as well as the ingredients list
To help you as a consumer make informed decisions about the foods you eat, many countries have introduced a front-of-packaging labeling standard that provides a quick and easy way to compare the nutritional value of products t better help you in understanding food labels.
Health Star Rating System
Here in Australia, we have a program called the Health Star Rating System, which first appeared in 2014.
The rating system gives a scores of the complete nutritional value of each packaged food and assigns a star rating from 0.5 to 5 stars.
The more stars the healthier.
Standard 1.2.8 of the Code already requires most packaged food to display a Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), which provides mandatory nutritional information on the average quantity per serve and per 100g or 100mL.
Having an additional rating system helps simplify and break down the process even further by giving a star rating giving you as the consumer a better understanding.
This is based on a calculation that takes into account the amounts of each of the below in the food:
- saturated fat
The objective of the Health Star Rating standard is to help you as a consumer make healthier choices by providing a quick and easy way to compare similar sorts of packaged foods.
Understanding Food Labels with the Health Star Rating System
The Australian Health Star Rating can be found on the front of the product’s packaging which rates the overall nutritional content of packaged food and assigns a star rating from 0.5 to 5 stars.
With 5 stars being the highest.
The scoring calculator was developed in consultation with Food Standards Australia New Zealand and other technical and nutrition experts.
The Health Star Rating system is a voluntary system here in Australia, meaning that manufacturers are not required to display a rating.
This being said, many food manufacturers have adopted the system as it can be a helpful tool for consumers to make healthier choices and help with understanding food labels.
There are some exempt products within the rating system, which are those with inherently low nutritional values, such as:
- herbs, spices, vinegar, salt, pepper, tea, coffee, herbal infusions, gelatine, and setting compounds
- Infant formula products
- Food for infants
- Formulated Supplementary Foods for young children
- Formulated Supplementary Sports Foods
- Foods for Special Medical Purposes
- Beverages containing alcohol
- Small packages less than 100cm2 are exempt from Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) labeling, and may not have space to carry HSR labeling.
Try using the Health Star Rating system next time you are shopping as this can be a way of understanding food labels and a positive step in improving your overall health and well-being.
Understanding Food Labels – Important Factors
When reading food labels, there are several important factors to look for, including:
Understanding food labels is important because they provide information on serving sizes.
A serving size listed on a food label tells you what the recommended serving size is and how many servings are in the package.
This information can help you manage your portions and make informed decisions about what and how much to eat.
Understanding food labels is important for managing your weight, as they tell you the number of calories per serving of the food.
Paying attention to the total number of calories you are consuming per serving size can help you make healthier food choices.
Understanding food labels is important because the nutrition facts section of the label provides information on the amount of nutrients such as:
- saturated fat
- trans fat
Paying attention to these values can help to ensure you are consuming a balanced diet and not exceeding your daily recommended intake for certain nutrients.
It’s essential to read and understand the nutrition facts section to make healthier choices.
Understanding food labels is important because the ingredients list can provide valuable information about what is in the food.
The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the first few ingredients are the most significant in terms of quantity.
When reading the ingredients list, look for whole, unprocessed ingredients and avoid foods with long lists of additives, artificial preservatives, and sweeteners.
If you have food allergies or intolerances, it’s crucial to pay close attention to food labels.
This is because food manufacturers are required to have allergens such as nuts, dairy, and gluten on their labels.
By carefully reading the ingredient list, you can identify any potential allergens or ingredients that may be allergic to or trying to avoid.
Another important tip for understanding food labels is to be aware of any health claims on the packaging, such as low fat or healthy.
Some foods marketed as healthy may still be high in calories, sugar, and sodium.
By paying attention to these factors when reading food labels, you can make informed choices that promote good health and well-being.
Understanding Food Labels – Things to Look for
When reading food labels, there are several things to look for.
Here are some tips:
Check the Ingredients List
When reading food labels, it’s important to look for whole, unprocessed ingredients and steer clear of foods with long lists of additives, artificial preservatives, and sweeteners.
If you come across an ingredient that you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce, it could be a sign that the food contains additives or preservatives.
These types of ingredients are often added to foods to enhance flavour, colour, and shelf life, and can cause negative impacts on your health.
By choosing foods with a simpler ingredient list, you can ensure that you are consuming more natural and nutritious options.
Look for No Added Labels
Food labels often have a No Added label, such as No Added Sugar or No Added Preservatives.
These labels can be helpful in identifying foods that are free from certain additives and preservatives.
No Added Sugar Label –
Indicates that the food does not contain any additional sugars beyond what is naturally present in the ingredients.
No Added Preservatives Label –
Indicates that the food does not contain any artificial preservatives to enhance its shelf life.
Choosing foods with these types of labels can be a good way to reduce your intake of certain additives and preservatives that may be detrimental to your health.
However, it’s still important to read the ingredient list carefully to ensure that the food meets your dietary needs and preferences.
Check the Sugar Content
When reading food labels, it’s important to choose foods that are low in sugar, preferably with less than 5 grams of added sugars per serving.
Keep in mind that some foods, like fruit and dairy products, naturally contain sugars, but these can still be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation.
By choosing foods with a lower added sugar content, you can reduce your overall sugar intake and lower your risk of health issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Check the Carb Content
If you’re looking to reduce your carbohydrate intake, it’s important to read food labels and choose foods that are low in carbs.
Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the amount of fibre in the food from the total carb content.
This calculation helps to identify the carbs that are likely to raise your blood sugar levels and affect your body’s ability to burn fat.
By choosing foods with a lower net carb content, you can better manage your blood sugar levels, improve your metabolism, and support your weight loss goals.
There are many different names for sugar, and it can be difficult to identify them all when reading food labels. Here are some common names for sugar to look out for on food labels:
- White sugar
- Brown sugar
- Raw sugar
- Cane sugar
- Beet sugar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
It is important to note that not all types of sugar are created equal.
While some types of sugar, such as those found naturally in fruits and vegetables, can be a part of a healthy diet, other types of added sugars can have negative health effects.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar to :
Limit daily intake to 6 teaspoons (24 grams)
Limit daily added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (36 grams).
Sugars to Limit
The following types of added sugars should be limited in your diet:
High-fructose Corn Syrup
This is a highly processed sweetener that is commonly added to many processed foods and beverages.
These sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, are calorie-free, but they can have negative health effects when consumed in excess.
Brown Sugar, Honey, and Agave
While these sweeteners are less processed than white sugar, they still contain high amounts of sugar and should be consumed in moderation.
Fruit Juice Concentrates
These are often used as sweeteners in processed foods and beverages.
They are high in sugar and lack beneficial fibre compared to whole fruit.
Overall, it is best to limit your intake of added sugars and focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods that contain naturally occurring sugars.
Naturally Occurring Sugars
While there are no healthy sugars, some naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can be part of a healthy balanced lifestyle when consumed in moderation.
This is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and honey.
This is the main source of energy for the body and is found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, and grains.
This is a naturally occurring sugar found in milk and dairy products.
This is a sugar made up of glucose and fructose and is found naturally in some fruits and vegetables, as well as in table sugar.
When consuming naturally occurring sugars, it is important to also consume a variety of fibre, vitamins, and minerals found in whole foods to help balance out the sugar content.
Names for Artificial Sweeteners and Preservatives
Here are some common names for artificial sweeteners and preservatives to look out for on food labels:
- Acesulfame potassium
- Stevia (a plant-based sweetener, considered safe but still considered an artificial sweetener by some)
- Sodium benzoate
- Potassium sorbate
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
- TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone)
- Sodium nitrate/nitrite
- Propionic acid
Artificial sweeteners are often used as a substitute for sugar to provide sweetness without adding calories. Preservatives are often added to food to prolong its shelf life and prevent spoilage.
It is important to note that not all artificial sweeteners and preservatives are harmful, and some have been approved for use by regulatory agencies such as the FDA.
However, it is always a good idea to read food labels carefully and to limit your consumption of highly processed foods that may contain these additives.
Approved Artificial Sweeteners and Preservatives
Here are some artificial sweeteners and preservatives that have been approved for use by regulatory agencies such as the FDA:
- Aspartame (brand names: Equal)
- Sucralose (brand name: Splenda)
- Saccharin (brand names: Sweet’N Low)
- Acesulfame potassium (brand names: Sunett, Sweet One)
- Neotame (brand name: Newtame)
- Stevia (brand names: Truvia, PureVia)
- Sodium benzoate
- Potassium sorbate
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
- TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone)
- Sodium nitrate/nitrite
These additives have undergone extensive safety testing and have been deemed safe for consumption in amounts approved by regulatory agencies.
However, it is still important to consume these additives in moderation and to read food labels carefully.
Some people may be sensitive or allergic to certain additives, so it is always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider.
Fats are a macronutrient that your body needs for energy and other functions.
Though, not all fats are created equal.
Some types of fats, such as saturated and trans fats, can increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems when consumed in excess.
Other types of fats, such as unsaturated fats, can be part of a healthy diet.
When reading food labels, here are some things to look for regarding fats:
This refers to the total amount of fat in the food, including both good and bad fats. The amount is listed in grams and can be used to help monitor your overall fat intake.
This refers to the amount of saturated fat in the food, which should be limited in the diet.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 5-6% of daily calories.
This refers to the amount of trans fats in the food.
Trans fats are often found in processed foods, fried foods, and baked goods, and should be avoided as much as possible.
This refers to the amount of healthy, unsaturated fats in the food, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
These fats can be part of a healthy diet and may help improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
These are types of polyunsaturated fats that are important for your brain function and heart health.
Look for foods that are high in these healthy fats, such as fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
When choosing foods, aim for those that are low in saturated and trans fats, and high in healthy unsaturated fats.
Reading food labels can help you make informed choices about the types and amounts of fats you are consuming.
Sodium is a mineral that the body needs to maintain proper fluid balance, transmit nerve impulses, and contract muscles.
Though, consuming too much sodium can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems.
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is a common source of sodium in the diet.
Most of the sodium that people consume comes from processed and packaged foods, rather than from salt added during cooking or at the table.
When reading food labels, here are some things to look for regarding sodium and salt:
This refers to the amount of sodium in the food, measured in milligrams (mg).
Foods that are high in sodium typically have more than 200 mg of sodium per serving, while foods that are low in sodium typically have less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
The Daily Value for sodium is 2,300 mg per day, but most health organisations recommend consuming less than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. To put it into perspective, that is less than 1 teaspoon per day.
When choosing foods, aim for those that are low in sodium and salt.
Look for foods labelled low sodium, no added salt, or salt-free.
You can also reduce your sodium intake by cooking more meals at home using fresh ingredients and by flavouring foods with herbs, spices, and other seasonings instead of salt.
General Guidelines to Help You Make Healthier Choices When Reading Food Labels
Some general guidelines that can help you make healthier choices when reading food labels.
Check the Serving Size
Make sure you are comparing the nutrient content of foods based on the same serving size.
Some packages may list serving sizes that are smaller than what you would normally eat, so be sure to adjust the nutrient content accordingly.
Look for Low Sodium and Low Added Sugar
Aim for foods that are low in sodium and also low in added sugars, as these can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Choose Whole Grains
Look for foods that contain whole grains, which provide fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
Whole grains can help lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health problems while helping to keep you fuller for longer.
Choose Lean Protein
Look for foods that are high in protein but low in saturated fat.
Good options include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and tofu.
Avoid Trans Fats
Avoid foods that contain trans fats, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Trans fats are often found in processed foods, fried foods, and baked goods.
Understanding Food Labels – Final Thoughts
In conclusion, reading and understanding food labels is an essential skill for anyone looking to make healthier choices about the foods they eat.
By understanding the information provided on a label, you can get a better sense of the nutritional value of food, as well as any additives, preservatives, or other ingredients that may be present.
When reading food labels, it is important to pay attention to factors like sugar, fats, sodium, and calories, and to be aware of the different names and forms in which these ingredients may appear.
Utilise and benefit from using tools like the Health Star Rating system, which provides an easy-to-understand rating system of packaged foods.
By combining these tips for reading food labels along with a commitment to choosing healthy, whole foods, you can take an important step towards improving your overall health and well-being.
I hope these tips have helped you get a better understanding of reading food labels. Let me know on my socials if you have any questions or anything to add!
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