When it comes to comparing products to determine which are healthier or more nutritious than others, things can get a little confusing. And let's be honest - none of us want to spend any longer in the supermarket than we absolutely have to! To help make the process easier, we've put together this quick guide to reading food labels.
Health Star Rating
Often seen on the front-of-pack labels on a range of foods, this system rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food (not used on fresh foods) and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to five stars. The more stars, the healthier the choice.
The Health Star Rating is helpful for comparing similarly packaged products; however it doesn't help with comparing different types of food (e.g. a breakfast cereal can't be compared to a yogurt, only to other breakfast cereals.)
It's also important to note that it's voluntary for food manufacturers to display; therefore if a product doesn't have stars this doesn't mean it's not the healthiest choice.
Nutrition information panel
Found on food packets, the nutrition information panel displays the amount of energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, sugar and sodium (salt) in the food per 100g (or 100mL if liquid) and per serve (serving size varies between products). Some panels also display other nutrients such as fibre or calcium.
The nutrition information panel is mandatory for food manufacturers to display and is helpful for comparing foods across different categories. However, it's important to use the 100g column to compare products as serving sizes vary.
We've put together this handy guide to help you understand what to look for when reading the nutrition information panel.
All manufactured food in Australia must display an ingredients list on their packaging. Ingredients are listed in order from the highest weight to the lowest and food additives are listed by name or a numbering system.
The ingredients list is useful for identifying potential allergens and looking out for sources of added sugar, salt, fat. However, sugar, salt and fat could be listed under other names such as shortening for fat, syrup for sugar and stock for salt. Opt for products with less ingredients when comparing items as they are usually less processed.
Nutrition content and health claims
Nutrition content claims such as "high fibre" or "low fat" are only allowed on a product when the manufacturer can prove the claim. Health claims such as "calcium for healthy bones and teeth" are not permitted on foods high in saturated fat, sugars or salt.
However, claims about the nutrient content can be made on unhealthy products and may not necessarily tell the whole story (e.g. products low in fat can still be high in sugar or salt).
It's best to read these claims carefully and also examine the nutrition information panel, Health Star Rating and ingredients list to make the healthiest choice. It's also important to watch out for labelling tricks which can be misleading. For example "light" or "lite" doesn't necessarily mean low in fat - it may just mean light in colour, taste or texture.