Reading food labels

woman checking food label at a supermarket

Learning how to read food labels can help you to make healthier choices for your family. Here are a few quick tips to make healthy food shopping a whole lot quicker and easier.

Nutrition information panel

The nutrition information panel must be listed on all packaged foods and helps you determine how much energy, sugar, fat, fibre and other nutrients that food contains. Some of the key features to look out for include:

  • Per serve and per 100g – There will usually be two columns on the nutrition information panel. The first shows how much energy or nutrients are in each serve and the second shows how much is found in 100g. Remember to check if your portion size is the same as the serving size. If you double the servings you eat, you’ll need to double the kilojoules and nutrients! You can compare different foods by looking at the ‘per 100g’ column.
  • Energy (kilojoules) – Look at the ‘per serve’ column to see how many kilojoules are in a serving of the food. Energy needs differ for everyone depending on their gender, weight, height and activity levels but the average adult female needs 9300kJ a day and the average adult male needs 11550kJ daily1. It’s not always necessary or healthy to count every kilojoule you eat, but kilojoules are good to be aware of and can help you to make better choices.
  • Total fat content – It’s generally advised to choose foods with less than 10g of fat per 100g. For milk and yoghurt, look for products that contain less than 2g of fat per 100g and cheese that contains less than 15g per 100g.2 However, it’s important to also look at the types of fats a food contains. If it has high levels of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat and low levels of saturated fat, then it may be a healthy option.
  • Sugar content – Choose mostly foods that contain less than 15g of sugar per 100g.2 Added sugars are often appear on food labels as other names such as dextrose, maltose, glucose, honey, golden syrup and sucrose.
  • Fibre content – Try and choose breads and cereals with more than 3g of fibre per serve.
  • Sodium (salt) content – Look for foods that contain less than 400mg of sodium per 100g.

Ingredients list

All ingredients of a packaged food must be listed from greatest to smallest by weight. If ‘sugar’ is listed as the first ingredient, this food has more sugar in it than anything so is probably not the healthiest option.

You might notice a whole lot of numbers often starting with the prefix ‘E’. These are man‐made or natural food additives such as preservatives, sweeteners and colours. For example, 950 is the artificial sweetener aspartame, 621 is the flavour enhancer MSG and 300 is vitamin C. Try and choose foods with less additives where possible. If a food contains more numbers than ingredients then it’s generally unlikely to be very nutritious and is better consumed only once in a while.

Nutrition and health claims

Sometimes food labels contain nutrition content claims like ‘low fat’, ‘high in calcium’ or ‘high in fibre’. These can only be used if they meet certain criteria. Nutrition claims can help guide you to make healthier choices but you should also check the nutrition information panel for a more complete picture of the food you are eating.