Decoding Food Labels

Thursday, January 16, 2020, in Nutrition, Advice by

Do food labels have your head spinning? You’re not alone. Today, a typical supermarket stocks over 30,000 items — even the most health-conscious shopper can be stumped by the limitless options. We’ve decoded the jargon so you can make sense of the fine print.

Read the fine print

The list of ingredients tells you more than you think and can be the deciding factor when choosing a product. Ingredients are listed in order of decreasing weight so if fat, sugar and salt top the list, it is probably not your healthiest bet. Likewise with long lists of unrecognisable or impossible names to pronounce.


Check the Carbs

Carbohydrate refers to starches and sugars – hence the term ‘total carbohydrates’. As a guide, one serve of bread (1 slice) contains 15g carbohydrate, therefore foods should contain roughly 20 to 30 grams of total carbs per serve to avoid a fuel overload.

What about sugar?

There are over 40 names to describe the sweet stuff, but the ones you want to be most wary of are “added sugars”, such as sweeteners harvested from sugar cane and sugar beet (e.g. glucose and fructose ) that don’t naturally occur in a whole food but are added to improve the taste or texture. And while these added sugars contain kilojoules for energy, it’s pretty void of other nutrients.

Currently Australians have no way of telling how much added sugar is in our food and the Australian government is calling for a review on sugar labelling. is a call to and health authorities recommend only a “moderate” amount of added sugar – advising less than 10% of total energy intake per day should come from added sugars. This equates to 25 grams, or six teaspoons of sugar a day. A blueberry muffin contains about eight teaspoons of sugar, while a 600ml bottle of soft drink contains 15 teaspoons of sugar.

As a simple rule, choose foods with LESS than 15g of total sugar per 100g. If the product contains naturally-occurring sugars, such as milk or dried fruit, aim for less than 25g of total sugar per 100g. Remember, when we are looking at sugars, we have to look at the food they come from, so skip to the ingredients to determine the type of sugar the product contains e.g. natural vs added.

Fibre is your friend

Fibre is the undigestible part of the plant foods, largely made up of carbohydrates which helps keep the gut healthy. While 3g per serve makes a good source of fibre – the more, the better.

Fat is fine – but it depends which type

Fat refers to the ‘total fat’ in a food including your healthy fats (e.g. unsaturated fats: nuts, seeds, olive oils) and unhealthy fats (e.g. saturated and trans fatty acids: biscuits, cakes, pastries, snack foods, desserts). As a general rule aim for less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g.

Slash the Salt
A whopping 75 per cent of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods. Foods labelled as ‘reduced salt’ can be misleading. Any product below 400mg per 100g is ideal.

Energy = Kilojoules or calories

In Australia energy appears as kilojoules (kJ) however you may also see it written as calories (kcal) which is simply another form of measuring the energy content of a food. Generally when comparing two foods, the lower the energy value the better.

Making sense of the Healthy Star Rating (HSR) system:

An initiative in food labelling is the HSR, which is an overall assessment of a food based on its nutrient content presented as a star rating from ½ to 5. Put simply, the higher the number of stars, the healthier choice making it easier to choose between different products in the same category. While this is helpful, the HSR should not be used to replace interpreting nutritional panels yourself and making sure you are getting all the nutrients you require by consuming foods from each of the food groups in appropriate portions.

TOP TIP: When choosing between similar products it is always best to use the per 100g column so you can directly compare the two products.

Kathleen is a trusted health expert in the field of nutrition and fitness. She is an exercise physiologist and nutritionist, author and founder of The Right Balance. Follow Kathleen on Instagram and Twitter, or get in touch: [email protected]

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