Food labels help you make healthier food choices. Thankfully, laws state that packaged and manufactured food must show ingredients and nutrition information panels so you can compare different foods. But you also need to know some of the tricks and traps that food manufacturers use to confuse you.
New Health Claim Laws
Thankfully there is a series of new health claim laws that came into effect this year in Australia and New Zealand, which are regulating which claims food companies can make about their products on their labels, as well as in advertisements.
More specifically, there are now three established types of health claims, which are based on the new standard, which is called ‘Standard 1.2.7 Nutrition, Health and related claims’:
- Nutrition content claims: these have to do with the presence (or absence) of a specific substance in the product. For example, a product that meets the set amount of calcium, as ordained by the new Standard, can claim that it is ‘High in calcium’.
- General level health claims: this type of claims has to do with a specific substance in the product, in conjunction with its effects on your health, as long as they don’t refer to any major diseases (such as heart disease) or their indicators (such as high blood pressure). For example, a company may claim that ‘Fibre keeps you regular’. Companies can pick from the general level health claims that are listed in the Standard, or they can make their own, provided that they can support their claim with valid scientific evidence.
- High level health claims: these can be made about a specific substance in their product that can affect a more serious disease, or even an indicator of such a disease. For example, a company may claim that their product is ‘Low in sodium – can help reduce blood pressure’ (blood pressure is an indicator of heart disease). These food-health relationships have to be pre-approved, and they have to be supported by scientific evidence. Even then, these claims will not be allowed if the product doesn’t meet the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion, which automatically excludes all food items which are high in harmful substances.
Food Labelling Pitfalls
However, not everything is as straightforward as we would like it to be. You shouldn’t let claims about a product being ‘healthier’ or ‘better for you’ or ‘lower in salt or sugar’ or whatever fool you. Many descriptions on food packaging are misleading, so you should always check the ingredient list and the nutrition panel to verify any claims. We wish there was greater transparency and honesty in food labelling (indeed, Whole Kids is campaigning for truth in food labelling), however it seems some food companies are more interested in the health of their bottom line than the health of the people who buy their products.
Foods that claim to be “Lite” or “Light” may not be low in fat or kilojoules, but rather light in colour, taste, texture or appearance. Pretty sneaky, uh?
Low fat or reduced fat? Very low-fat foods must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat. Low-fat solid foods must contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 gram serve; low-fat liquid foods must contain less than 1.5 grams of fat per 100 mL. And remember, if a food claims to be 90 per cent fat-free, that food is actually 10 per cent fat.
Extra vitamins and minerals? Well, check the percentage of recommended daily intake is stated to see how much is really in there. Also, just because a package says “Added niacin or vitamin C’ doesn’t mean the product is a healthy choice – most breakfast cereals make these claims but are loaded with sugar and sodium.
All ingredients in a food product must be, by law, listed on the label in descending order of weight. Even here, however, things are not always what they seem. Not all ingredients must be listed by their percentage weight. The amount of the key ingredient — the ingredient usually mentioned in the name of the product (e.g. apricots in an apricot muesli bar) — must be listed with a percentage indicating how much of the product consists of that ingredient. In some products, such as plain bread, there are no key ingredients.
We believe there needs to be more truth in labelling, including how ingredients are named and what percentage is in each product. We think food manufacturers should come clean and show the percentage by weight of all ingredients, not just the key one.
Deciphering ingredients can also be tricky. For example, a product may be made mostly of sugar but a food manufacturer may use different terminology for ‘sugar’ so that sugar doesn’t appear as the first ingredient. Some other ‘code’ words for sugar include: brown-rice syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, rice syrup, sorbitol, sucrose and xylose.
The Nutrition Information Panel on a food label offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre.
A good resource can be found on the Australian Government’s Eat for Health website here.
What You Need to Know About Food Labelling
In order to be confident that what you’re choosing for your dinner table is safe and healthy for your family to eat, you should learn how to decipher the labels that are on every product. We can help you with that, with some helpful tips
You may notice that there are many different listings, and a few numerical values, as well. Have no fear, though, because decoding food labels is hardly as complicated as it may look at a glance, and we will help you break it down, while explaining how things work.
The first thing you should check out is the top portion of the label, where the recommended portion /serving size is listed. In our example above, it’s the green portion at the top. The portion size is generally listed in cups (volume) and grams (weight), and you will also be able to see how many servings you get per package, so that you can get a better idea what a single portion looks like.
Right below this portion, on the right side of the nutritional information list, you will be able to find the food’s nutrients and calories/kilojoules per 100 gr. This is useful for comparing foods, independently of portion size.
n other parts of the world, in FDA packaging and others, right beneath the green section and to the left, you will find the energy value per serving of this particular food. Calories and kilojoules are used to measure energy, and each food has its own specific value, depending on how much energy you would get when consuming it. If you’d like to convert kilojoules to calories, you should remember that 100 kilojoules make for about 25 calories (23.9 to be exact).
Energy can come from various nutrients, such as fat or protein, however we will get to that in a bit. What’s important here is to note that this section also lists the food’s caloric value per serving that comes exclusively from fat, which is, in this case, 110gr (about 44%).
In Australian food labels this is easily deduced by checking each nutrient’s weight percentage per 100 gr, which is listed on the right side of the nutrient list.
Next comes the nutrient list, which provides consumers with information regarding some key nutrients that are deemed either potentially harmful, or nutritionally desirable. The weight of each nutrient per serving is listed, usually in grams or micrograms, right next to its name, and in some cases there are subgroups under a specific nutrient, listing more detailed information (such as the content of saturated or trans fats, which are listed under the ‘total fat’ listing). On the right, as we said, you can find each nutrient’s weight content per 100 gr of the product or food.
Other listings you should keep an eye out for are fibre, sodium (salt) and sugar. As long as a food product contains at least 3 gr of fibre, you can be sure it’s considered to be high in fibre, and therefore healthy in that respect.
All nutrients should be included in a well-balanced diet, even fats and salt (sodium), however most people tend to eat too much fats, sugars and salt, which can lead to some serious health problems, whereas other, healthier nutrients get ignored. In general, suspect nutrients offer way more calories per gram than their healthier counterparts do, which might make conjuring up a balanced diet plan trickier than it has to be.
In FDA labels suspect ingredients are listed in yellow, whereas their healthier counterparts are listed in blue, in an attempt to make the label easier to read.
The footnote section of a food label, when included, will feature the ingredients the food product is made of, according to weight percentage. The top three listings are its key ingredients, and should give you a good idea of where the products’ fats, sugar and salt are coming from.
High in fat ingredients names include animal fat, beef fat, butter, chocolate, milk solids, coconut oil, milk, cream, and many more. Ingredients that include a lot of sugar can be listed as dextrose, glucose, fructose, maple syrup, corn syrup, honey, etc. Other ingredients, which contain a lot of salt, are baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, yeast extract, sea salt, rock salt, and more.
If you find yourself overseas, and you notice that the footnote of your food label looks different, you should know that some foreign food labels’ footnotes always remain the same, no matter the product they’re on; it’s sort of a general guideline, which lists the recommended daily intake of certain nutrients, based on a 2000 calorie diet (on the left), and on a 2500 calorie diet (on the right).
Every person is unique, and each one of us has their own specific energy needs, depending on their height, their weight, and their level of activity, however the 2000 calorie per day mark is generally accepted as an average value for adults worldwide. People who want to lose weight will need to eat less calories, though, and a higher caloric intake will lead to an increase in weight, so bear in mind that you may need to find out your own optimal caloric intake per day, and adjust the listings’ values accordingly. Kids are different all together!
FDA-type labels also list the recommended % daily value, instead of the 100 gr weight content section in the nutrient list. Its data is based on a 2000 calorie per day diet, as shown in the FDA footnote section. Remember; if your personal ideal caloric intake is higher or lower than the 2000 mark that’s used here, you will have to adjust these percentages accordingly!
Next to each item in the yellow and blue-colored sections of an FDA nutrients list, you will find a percentage that serves as a quick guide to help you see just how much of your total needs per nutrient a serving of this specific food would cover. For example, if you need 65gr of fat per day tops (as shown in the footnote), then a serving of macaroni and cheese would cover about 12 gr, which comes to about 18% of your maximum recommended daily intake for fat!
As a rule of thumb, anything below 5% DV content is considered as being too low, whereas anything above 20% is deemed too high, so keep that in mind, especially when it comes to the less desirable nutrient listings, found on the yellow portion of the label.
Now that you know what each part of a food label is all about, don’t you feel like you can decode anything you may find on your shopping list? Unfortunately, no, things aren’t as straightforward as we’d like.
Even though you would expect all ingredients in a product to be listed on the food label, you might be surprised that companies almost never do provide their customers with adequate information about what is in their food, since they often choose to omit certain ingredients, or even switch their names around in order to confuse the untrained eye (for example, sugar may be listed as dextrose or maltose). Sometimes labels can be even more misleading, since they often state some pretty vague terms, such as ‘light’ or ‘lite’, which may refer to a product’s color, taste or texture, instead of its caloric content.
And God forbid they ever listed the entirety of their products’ ingredients! In some cases, food manufacturers are required by law to list their key ingredients, along with their percentages, but that doesn’t apply to every ingredient in there. Besides, there are quite a few products that don’t really have any key ingredients to speak of. At Whole Kids, we list 100% of the ingredients we use as we believe in full transparency.
Ideally, every last bit of food that finds its way onto your plate should be labelled with a list of each and every one of its ingredients, written in simple terms, along with information on their weight percentage and nutritional value. This would be the only way to be certain that we are adequately informed, in order to make the best dietary decisions! Until then, we will just have to learn to avoid the clever tricks that food manufacturers often use in order to camouflage what’s really in their products.
Once you get the hang of it and feel like you have mastered reading food labels, you will be able to choose what to include in your daily meal plans, armed with all the confidence in the world that you and your loved ones will get to enjoy a wide variety of wholesome, nutritional and tasty food.
We recommend that you speak to your paediatrician and a dietician to help you create a meal plan for you and your family.