How to Debunk Food Labels

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You have probably seen people scouting food labels down the supermarket aisle from time to time, but have you ever wondered what they are looking at specifically? Understanding how to read and interpret food labels can be a difficult task and this article is going to help breakdown the key parts that are found on food labels to hopefully make grocery shopping that little bit easier.

So, let’s break it down starting with the most important piece of information:

The Nutrition Information Panel

The nutrition information panel (NIP) is a requirement as part of FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) legislation. By law, all products are required to include a nutrition information panel excluding products such as fresh produce, herbs and spices, water and alcoholic beverages. People might read nutrition labels for several reasons; for example, those who are trying to limit the amount of fat or sugar in their diet; someone who has diabetes (who need to keep track of their carbohydrate intake); those who are counting their macronutrients (ie carbs, protein and fat); to check nutritional claims and in a lot of cases people are just curious as to what’s actually in the food that they’re buying.

This panel is where you will find the average quantity of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, sodium and any other relevant nutrients found within the product. These quantities will be listed in 2 columns – one column expresses the amount per serving and the other column will list per 100g or 100mL. The second column or the ‘per 100g’ column is best when comparing products. The NIP will also include the number of servings per package and describes what one serving looks like – beware of foods that may look like a single serve but in fact contain several servings.

The detail found within the NIP will depend on the product, for example not all labels will include fibre and some labels might provide more detail about the type of fat found within the ‘total’ fat content (unsaturated v saturated v trans fat). In terms of fat, try and aim for less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g and 0g of trans fat (saturated and trans fats increase LDL a.k.a. bad cholesterol which can increase your risk of heart disease; instead opt for foods containing healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to help reduce this risk). When looking at carbohydrates, avoiding carbohydrates completely is not necessary; instead look at the ‘sugars’ row and aim for less than 5g per 100g. Additionally, if sugar content per 100g is more than 15g, check that the sugar is not listed high on the ingredient list and look for different names for sugar such as sucrose, fructose, dextrose, malt extract and glucose. Foods with naturally occurring sugars that offer essential nutrients are also listed under sugars so check for added sugars when comparing products. When looking at sodium or salt, steer towards foods that have less than 120mg per 100g. And in terms of fibre, foods that contain 3g or more per serve are a healthier option (fibre is what keeps things moving regularly throughout our digestive system – so the more fibre the better!).

The Ingredients List

The ‘ingredients’ list is also part of the NIP and lists the ingredients from greatest to smallest (by weight). If the first three ingredients are salt or a form of fat or sugar, this means that these ingredients are high and will most likely deem the product an unhealthy choice. People who have allergies to certain foods will find this section useful as this is where all ingredients are listed. Likewise, those who have coeliac disease and need to avoid consuming gluten will be able to decipher if they need to avoid the product. Food labels must also show the percentage of key ingredients found within the product. Key ingredients are often found in the name of the food or emphasised on the packaging in the form of images ie a muesli bar made mostly of nuts might have images of different types of nuts in the packaging or form part of the product name or flavour.

The Health Star Rating System

The health star rating (HSR) is found on the front of food packaging which provides information surrounding the energy content, levels of saturated fat, sodium and sugars. It will also rate the product out of 5 stars (5 stars reflecting a healthy food choice). The HSR was designed to make it easier for shoppers to make informed choices about healthier food choices. The issue with the HSR is that foods are not categorised into their respective groups – instead all foods from all food groups are compared against one another for example cereal is compared with yoghurt (and we know each food group compliments one another so why should we choose cereal over yoghurt if it has a higher HSR). The HSR also comes under fire as it does not consider the food as a whole or the nutrients it provides – instead it compares the levels of saturated fat for example found within the food (and yes saturated fat isn’t very good for us – but when you consider the benefits of olive oil and compare it to canola oil; canola oil comes out on top because it has slightly less saturated fat).

Nutrition content claims

To be a supermarket sleuth you need to be able to outsmart the marketing strategies that companies use to help upsell their product and a few of the main ways these marketing companies make their products seem healthy is by using:
• ‘Low fat’ or ‘low sugar’ claims – although these claims sound great and make the product seem like a healthy option, the claims are often made in comparison to another product within the same range. For example, if company X labelled their yoghurt as ‘low fat’ it might have less fat than their full fat range but in comparison to company Y’s low fat yoghurt, fat is still high. It is also important to note that products that are lower in sugar or contain little to no sugar are often replaced with artificial sweeteners or fatty ingredients so that it still tastes good (and vice versa with low fat options – which are often high in sugar). In comparison products that are high in fat may contain high levels of good fat (ie polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), which will be specified under ‘total fat’.
• ‘No added sugar’ claims – No added sugar means that no sugar has been added during processing however the components that make up the product might contain some form of sugar in their natural form e.g. milk products or fruit.
• ‘Diet’- Products labelled as ‘diet’ will often contain artificial sweeteners in place of sugar which can cause overconsumption as the brain will respond to sweetness with signals to eat more. And by providing a sweet taste without any calories it can cause us to think that we can consume more which can add up to excess calories.
• ‘Organic’ – Foods labelled as ‘organic’ typically mean that the ingredients have been grown or produced without use of artificial fertiliser, chemicals or pesticides. Many people associate the term organic with health however many organic products on the market can also be packed with fat and sugar meaning more calories! Companies may also add words such as natural or quality which may also be misleading.

While nutritional claims can generally guide you as to which product is better than the next, it’s important to check the claim by looking at the ‘per 100g’ column in the NIP and comparing against other products within the same category.

Percentage daily intake

The percentage daily intake (%DI) is included in the NIP in some products and gives an indication of how much one serve will contribute to the daily intake of protein/fat/carbohydrate etc. for an ‘average adult’. The %DI requires the consumer to undertake difficult calculations to use the information effectively. Despite this it can be used as a rough guide if you are measuring your nutrient and energy requirements.

In today’s health-conscious society, there is increasing demand for ‘healthier’, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ products. To meet these demands many food companies utilise misleading health claims to upsell their products. Knowing how to read food labels and outsmart marketing strategies is the key to making smarter supermarket choices.

Sophie Szczudlo

Sophie is a recent graduate from Griffith University with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics. Throughout her degree and during professional placement, she learnt and demonstrated several skills throughout clinical, community and food service settings. She also had the opportunity to work in a paediatric hospital as part of her clinical placement. Sophie is passionate about providing evidence-based personalised nutrition advice to her future clients to help achieve their goals and work towards maintaining a balanced and healthy way of life.

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