The art of reading food labels

When buying packaged foods, many products regularly have “nutrition claims” on the label. It is always best to read a nutrition panel and decide for yourself whether a food is a good choice or not, rather than relying on nutrition claims.  

The following are examples of nutrition claims and what they really mean. For more information on reading food labels check out Queensland Health's information sheet.

Understanding Food Claims

‘All natural’

  • Usually means there are no artificial colours, flavours of preservatives
  • It does not mean it is the best choice as the product may still be high in fat, sugar and/or salt

‘Light or lite’

  • Does not necessarily mean less fat, sugar or kilojoules
  • Can mean light in flavour, texture or colour
  • Best to look at the nutrition panel for total fat

‘No cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’

  • Does not mean low in fat
  • Does not mean low in saturated fat
  • Best to look at the total saturated fat in the nutrition panel to determine if a food is good for cholesterol

‘Reduced fat’

  • Indicates that the food contains less fat than standard products
  • Does not mean it is low fat
  • Usually there is a 25-35% fat reduction. Compare fat content of foods using the nutrition information panel

‘No added sugar’

  • No sugar is added to the product during production
  • It may still contain naturally occurring sugar
  • Example, many fruit juices have no added sugar but contain high amounts of natural fruit sugar which can still affect nutrition

‘Low joule’ or ‘diet’

  • These claims describe foods which are lower in kilojoules than a similar product
  • Usually contain artificial sweeteners

‘97% fat free’ or 'Low fat'

  • Must contain less than 3g of fat per 100g
  • Still consider the sugar and sodium content of these foods

‘Low GI’

  • This product has been tested for its effect on blood glucose (sugar) levels. Lower GI foods cause a slower rise in blood glucose levels when eaten, compared to higher GI foods. 
  • Does not mean that it is healthier than other brands
  • Does not mean the food is low in added sugar
  • Compare nutrition panels to make sure you are making the healthiest choice


Nutrition Information and Ingredients 

The numbers on the nutritional information label tell you important information about your food and help you make the best choice for you. Here's what to look for:

Per Serving or Per 100g?

  • Using the 'Per 100g' column is best to use when comparing different products or brands
  • The 'Per Serving' column helps you to understand how many kilojoules or how much of a nutrient you will consume if eating the serving size. 

Fat - total: 

  • Less than 10g per 100g is a good choice
  • Less than 3g per 100g is an excellent choice - this means it is Low Fat

Fat – saturated:

  • This is an unhealthy type of fat. Saturated fat in excess amounts increases cholesterol
  • Aim for the lowest per 100g; less than 3g per 100g is a good choice

Fat – trans:

  • This is an unhealthy type of fat that also increases cholesterol
  • Is not mandatory to be included on product      
  • Less than 1g per 100g

Fat - monounsaturated, polyunsaturated

  • In small amounts, these are considered healthy types of fats, which can help to lower cholesterol or improve heart health
  • However, they are still a fat so can also contribute to excess kilojoule consumption and weight gain if eaten in excess. 

Carbohydrate:

  • Total carbohydrate includes sugars and starches.

Sugar:

  • Sugars include both naturally occurring and added sugars.
  • Naturally occurring sugars are often found in fruits and dairy products. Naturally occurring sugar such as fruit is a better choice than added sugar.  
  • Less than 10-15g per 100g is a good choice (allow less than 20g per 100g if the product contains fruit)
  • Less than 2g per 100g is an excellent choice

Dietary fibre: 

  • Not all nutrition panels will list fibre
  • Look for the most fibre per serve; aim for greater than 3g per serve

Sodium:

  • Also known as salt, raises blood pressure
  • Less than 400mg per 100g is a good choice 
  • Less than 120mg per 100g is an excellent choice

Ingredient list:

  • Ingredients must be listed from the highest to the lowest content.
  • Percentages of key ingredients must be stated
  • Ingredients like fat, sugar and sodium can often be listed in the ingredients list under different names, making it hard to spot when they have been added. Take a look at this Healthier.Happier resource from Queensland Government for a list of other common names these may be hidden as. 


Other Food Labels

Health Star Rating

  • Labelling system that rates the overall nutrition of packaged food to help with comparing and choosing healthier options. 
  • Assigns a 'star' rating (from 1/2 to 5 stars). Higher stars indicate a healthier product. 
  • Should only be used to compare similar products (e.g. comparing 2 types of fruit juices), rather than across different types of foods (not suitable for e.g.  comparing a fruit juice with a yoghurt). 
  • Only applies to packaged foods. Don't forget fresh, unpackaged foods like fruit and veggies are some of the best choices. 


Reproduced from:

1. Arthritis and Osteoporosis Western Australia
2. Eat for Health - How to Understand Food Labels
3. Health Star Rating System - About Health Star Ratings
Reviewed and updated November 2019. 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER