Nutrition labels can be extremely confusing. Clever wording and marketing techniques can mislead and even trick consumers into thinking their junky purchase is a healthy choice. Luckily, government bodies like Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) produce food labelling guidelines, outlining rules by which food producers must abide to keep things as transparent as possible – usually.
But it’s not just the plethora of health claims that have us consumers confused. What exactly do all the numbers on a Nutrition Information Panel (NIP, for us nutrition nerds) mean? Not to mention all those the extra numbers in the ingredient list.
Here are my top 5 basic tips for translating the NIP:
1) No ingredient list = tick
As much as possible, choose foods that have no wordy lists of ingredients and additives. Wonder why an apple doesn’t have a nutrition panel? Because it doesn’t need one!
Of course, many foods require packaging, so when comparing these, go for those with a short ingredient list. This indicates that the food is as close to its natural state as possible.
2) Compare per 100g, not serving size
All food labels must include the nutritional information for a 100g quantity as well as for the recommended serving size. When weighing up two products, always go by the 100g numbers rather than the serving size. Obvious as it may seem, serving sizes vary significantly between brands, making the comparison less reliable than the 100g quantities.
3) Learn to decode the ingredient list
There are many additives in our food system, used to keep food fresher for longer or enhance the colour, flavour or texture. While the additives allowed in our food system by FSANZ have been proven safe for consumption, and are only allowed in miniscule amounts to avoid negative side effects, not everyone is convinced. If you’re concerned about unwittingly consuming these additives here’s what to look out for.
The additives will be listed according to their class, followed by a chemical name or number. This is a universal system, so most countries you visit will adhere to the same labelling requirements.
Colour (102) Tartrazine
Colour (110) Sunset Yellow
Acidity Regulator (260)
Flavour enhancer (621) MSG
Sweetener (951) Aspartame
Preservative (220) Sulphur dioxide
Read more about food additives here.
4) Be aware of the order of ingredients listed
Ingredients are listed by weight, in descending order. Taking note of the components that appear first in the list will give an indication of the amount present in the food, and thus the product’s quality. For example, if sugar (or something even more sinister you can’t pronounce!) features in the first few ingredients, chances are it’s not the healthiest choice.
5) Beware of misleading statements
Probably the strongest motivator in swaying a consumer’s choice of packaged foods, health and nutrition content claims are voluntary statements on packaging that aid in advertising the product.
A nutrition content claim refers to a claim that certain nutrients or substances are present in the food – for instance, ‘low in fat’ or ‘high in calcium’. Claims such as these must adhere to criteria outlined by FSANZ.
Health claims refer to a relationship between a nutrient contained in the food and a health outcome, or symptom of a condition. For instance, ‘calcium is good for bones and teeth’ or ‘diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people 65 years and over’.
Strict rules apply to the publishing of claims like these, but companies will often apply clever techniques to create the illusion of health in not-so-healthy foods, or simply to improve the image of an already healthy food.
Don’t fall for these ones:
‘Lite’ – This is often used to describe the colour or flavour, rather than the fat content, as most of us assume. Commonly used in olive oils.
‘Reduced fat’ – May in fact be lower in fat compared to the original product; doesn’t necessarily result in a low fat product overall.
‘No added sugar’ – While no sugar may be added, the food itself may be high in natural sugars. This applies to fruit products (particularly canned/frozen), dairy products and honey.
‘Fresh, pure, natural, raw….’ – Used to create an image of a healthier product, vague words like these often have very little relation to the actual product or its nutritional quality. Take for example these Go Natural Yoghurt Almonds and Apricot bars, claiming to “taste good, naturally.” Sounds lovely, but a key ingredient in the product is hydrogenated palm oil: not only terrible for the environment, but also artificially produced and full of saturated fat.
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