Many people who come to me for nutrition and dietetic support think that if they just knew how to read nutrition labels, they would be able to make better food choices, eat better and lose weight.
People are lead to believe that label reading helps them to make choices that can affect their long-term health.
There is some truth in this, however, what do people do when they come across foods that don’t have a label? For example, whole foods like fruit, vegetables and meats don’t often have a label.
In this article, I will explain the only time you need to read nutrition labels along with the handful of times when reading a label may be useful. I will also address when reading a label is NOT helpful.
The Nutrition Information Panel Contains the Following Information:
Food labels or Nutrition Information Panels are found on most packaged foods and beverages.
Nutrition Information Panels gives you information about the nutrient make up of a packaged food product in terms of measurements.
Food labels provide a detailed description of a packaged food or drink.
- Ingredient list
The ingredient list describes what is in a food product. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from the highest to the lowest quantity present.
- Allergen information
Many packaged foods contain common food allergens that may not be obvious.
When you have a food allergy (or intolerance), learning how to read food labels is important to ensure the foods you buy do not contain allergens.
Typical allergens include peanut, milk, egg, soy, seafood and wheat.
- Serving size & number of servings per package
Food labels also show the suggested serving size of a food, along with how many servings you should expect to get out of the packaged food (based on the suggested serving size).
- Nutrients contained in the product
The following nutrients are contained in the food product listed per serving size and per 100g:
o Energy (kilojoules/calories)
o Total fat and saturated fat
o Total Carbohydrate sugar
o Sodium (Salt)
o Fibre (may not always be present)
- Nutritional claims
Food labels can display nutritional claims that may be misleading.
The Nutrition Information Panel is the best place to look to decide if a packaged food product is a good choice for you at the time.
Below are some common claims and what they mean:
- Low Fat: Contains less than 3g fat per 100g.
- Reduced Fat/Salt: Contains at least 25% less fat compared to the original product.
- Reduced fat or salt – The product contains at least 25% less sugar compared to the original product.
- Diet: The product has been artificially sweetened.
- No added sugar: Sugar has not been added to the product, however, it may contain naturally occurring sugar.
- Natural: There is no clear definition of the word “natural”. “Natural” does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural.
The Only Time You Need To Read Food Labels Is….
If you have allergies/intolerances or some other medical condition that means having a particular food is life-threatening or uncomfortable.
Here Are A Handful Of Other Times That You Might Find Label Reading To Be Useful.
- If you want to know where the product ingredients are sourced and made.
- When you want to bake or make a food at home and are interested in knowing what the ingredients to include.
- Want to compare packaged food products.
When And Why Label Reading Is Not Useful:
- When you do not understand what the label’s purpose is and how to read it.
- When you are susceptible to dieting behaviour.
- Causes you to judge food as “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “good” or “bad”.
- Causes you to feel guilt or shame for having the food.
- Causes you to fear food.
- Causes you to restrict food.
- Causes you to become fixated on labelling and food.
- When you know the calorie and nutrient content of particular food.
- When you make most of your food choices based on the label.
There Is Another Much Simpler Way To Make Better Food Choices That Does Not Require You To Constantly Look At Labels:
- Buy fresh whole foods that don’t have food labels. These are foods close to their natural state and are single ingredients. E.g. carrot, broccoli, apples, oranges, chicken, beef, legumes, milk and so on.
- Buy a variety of foods across the 5 food groups and keep your pantry and fridge well stocked.
- Start shopping in the fruit, vegetable and meat sections of the supermarket and stock your trolley with these foods first before you go to the packaged food aisles.
- Buy foods you actually enjoy not based on food labelling and marketing claims. Health claims and the Health Star Rating System can be confusing and misleading.
- Eat intuitively and mindfully.
If You Must Read A Food Label, Here Is How To:
- Be clear about why you are reading packaged food labels and what you will look at to help you to achieve your goal.
- Look at the per serving size when looking at specific nutrients.
- When comparing products, use the per 100g column as often products have different serving sizes.
- If in doubt, always trust your body. Your body does know how to look after you when you let it.