Decoding food labels

Calories, serving sizes, nutrients, cholesterol… Is it really any wonder we don’t know how to read food labels? We’ve done some digging in an attempt to make food labels a little easier to understand. We’re talking ingredients, nutrition facts, and what you should be on the lookout for.

A Few Handy Hints

Serving size

Many packages contain more than one serving, which can be misleading if you’re not sure what to look out for. I personally make this mistake often, assuming that the box or pack is a single serving, which is often not the case. Have a look at the net weight of the package, and compare it to the suggested serving size. If the package weight is 50g and the suggested serving size is 25g, then it’s easy to calculate that there are two servings per package.

Calories

Like nutrients, calories should be listed for both the 100g weight as well as the serving size. If you are on a calorie-restricted diet, or are trying to eat more calories, this will give you an indication of how many servings you should be aiming for. If the energy isn’t displayed as calories, but rather as kilojoules, or kJ, don’t stress. There are 4.184 kJ to one calorie, which means that food with an energy content of 100 calories will have an energy content of 418.4 kJ. If, like me, you find calories to be anxiety inducing, ignore them and focus more on the nutritional value of the food.

Percent Daily Value

Nutrients are scaled from 0% to 100% based on the nutrient content in one serving of food. So if a specific nutrient has a DV (Daily Value) of 10%, it means that one serving contains 10% of your total daily requirement for that nutrient. Daily Values are calculated on a 2 000 calorie diet required for a healthy adult.

Take Note of these Nutrients

Food labels should specify how much of a specific nutrient it contains per 100g and per serving. Ideally, you want food and snacks that are higher in fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium – you know, the good stuff – and try to avoid foods that are higher in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol. The maximum sodium intake for adults is 2 000mg, which is a mere teaspoon of salt everyday. Take it easy on the chips if high blood pressure is a concern for you.

 

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The Ingredients List

By law the ingredients stated on a food label have to be listed in descending order by weight, which means that the highest quantity ingredients will appear first, and the lowest quantity ingredients will appear last. I’m trying to cut down on sugar, which means that if it pops up in the first three or four ingredients, it’s a no from me.

Sometimes ingredients can appear under different names, which means that if you’re avoiding sugar, you should also be on the lookout for names like cane sugar, honey, sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup.

If you’re trying to avoid fats, keep an eye out for vegetable fats, hydrogenated fats, lard, shortening, coconut oil and palm kernel oil.

What do these Statements Mean

Statements on packages can be misleading and super confusing. What’s the difference between “low” and “no”?

Low salt products can’t contain more than 0.3 grams of salt per 100g, while sodium free products have to contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium.

Low fat products can’t contain more than 3 grams of fat per 100g, and products that are fat free can’t contain more than 0.5 grams of fat per 100g.

Products that are labeled “LITE” are “low in total energy”, and low in energy products have to contain less than 170 kilojoules per 100g.

Sugar free products have to contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per 100g or 100mL, while cholesterol free products contain less than 2 milligrams cholesterol.

Products marketed as high fiber contain at least 6 grams fiber per 100g, while high protein products contain at least 10 grams of protein per 100g, or 5 grams protein per 100mL.

Did this help a little with decoding food lables? Let us know in the comments below.

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