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How to Properly Decode a Nutrition Label, According to a Dietitian

Navigating nutrition labels can be both confusing and slightly daunting if you don’t know what to look for so learning to read them is a really important life skill to master. If you're looking to improve your health and achieve your nutrition goals, understanding nutrition labels will help you choose products with a health-promoting balance of fat, sugar, salt, and fiber. 

Let’s take a look at the major components of a nutrition label.

What you’ll see on a Nutrition Information Panel

The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), is where you'll find the serving size, the number of serves per package, and a breakdown of nutrients in the product.

The 'per 100g' column is  a great tool to use when you want to compare different products. 

The 'per serve' column is useful to know what you get in terms of nutrition each time you eat a 'serve' as indicated on the NIP. 

The NIP will firstly show you total energy, which comes from macronutrients - specifically protein, fat, and carbohydrates. After this, the label will give you a breakdown of these macronutrients. 

Fat is divided into total fat and saturated fat as the latter is the unhealthy type of fat that should be limited. 

Sugar is also listed separately to carbohydrates. Note that not all sugar is bad as the natural type (like those found in dairy and fruit) should be included in a balanced diet. 

Sodium is also listed on the NIP, and this should also be limited. 

Fiber can be included, but isn't mandatory on the label. 

The other main part of a nutrition label is the ingredients list. Note that this is ordered by weight or percentage of content. This suggests that we would want to avoid products with sugar, sodium, or saturated fat listed in the first three ingredients, as these products would be high in those. 

Here's a full rundown of how to properly read the label, and what to look out for. 

A complete guide to reading and understanding a nutrition label

1. Energy

Energy content is one component where we want to look at the ‘per serve’ column, because we want to know the amount of energy we will be getting when we eat that product. A kilojoule is a unit of energy, used to measure how much energy people get from consuming food or drink. Different foods offer different amounts of kilojoules – 1g of fats contains 37kJ, 1g of protein contains 17kJ and 1g of carbohydrates contains 29kJ.

2. Fiber

Aim for 7.5g per 100g. It’s always good to compare breads, cereals, and crackers, and to look for a higher fiber product when possible. Fiber is excellent for gut and bowel health and can aid in lowering cholesterol. 

3. Sugar

Aim for 10g per 100g or less. For sugar, we also want to check the ‘per serve’ column. Note that just 4g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon. Other names for sugar that food companies may use are dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, raw sugar, sucrose, and maple syrup. 

4. Sodium

Processed foods can often be high in salt. Aim for <120g per 100g for ‘low salt’ if you have been prescribed a low sodium diet, or <400g per 100g for moderate salt. Again, compare products such as bread and crackers and opt for the lower sodium items when possible. For tinned goods such as tinned vegetables or soups, grab for the ‘no added salt’ products. Other names that companies may use instead of salt to indicate sodium are garlic salt, celery salt, onion salt, garlic salt, rock salt, sea salt, vegetable salt, stock cubes, yeast extract, meat extract, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate, and MSG.  

5. Total fat

Aim for <10g per 100g. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are essential for good health and so should be included in the diet, but in small amounts. For dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and ice-cream, choose <2g per 100g and <15g per 100g for cheese.

6. Saturated fat

Aim for <3g per 100g. An exception to this will be cooking oils, margarine, cheese, and nuts and seeds, which will naturally have a higher amount. Other names for ingredients that are often high in saturated fat are animal fat, animal oil, butter, chocolate, coconut, coconut oil/milk/cream, milk solids, cream, lard, suet, ghee, palm oil, sour cream, and vegetable shortening. 

Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian

Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.

Liked this? Here's how to do your weekly grocery shop with $50 or less, according to a dietitian. 

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