How to Read Food Labels: Making Healthier Choices At the Grocery Store

I don’t know about you, but when I’m grocery shopping, I don’t want to be there any longer than I have to. And, for many of us, we don’t have the time to be standing around and figuring out what the labels mean and how to use them.

As consumers, we’re becoming more health-conscious than ever before. So, being able to understand how to read these labels helps us make healthier food choices. You can use food labels to support your personal dietary needs. Look for foods or products that contain more of the nutrients you want, and less of the nutrients you may want to limit.

Packaged food labels are complex. With large amounts of text in small font, it makes it hard to not only read, but understand. What’s all the jargon we see on the back of the product?

H2: Australian Law 

The law in Australia requires that all manufactured food products contain labels outlining safety and nutritional information. These details help us make more informed decisions about the food we buy so we can ensure we’re eating a healthy diet. Law requires that all food products should be telling us the following:

  • The name of the product and an accurate description of what it is 
  • The brand’s name
  • An ingredients list (in order from largest to smallest by weight) 
  • Nutritional information (energy, fat, protein, sugars and salt) 
  • Percentage labelling (how much of the ingredients it contains – to compare to other products)
  • Use-by or best-before date
  • Manufacturer details 
  • Weight 
  • Food allergy information 
  • List of food additives
  • Directions for use and storage
  • Country in which the food was produced 

All food products have to list seven food components on their nutritional informational panels. These are: 

  • Energy (kilojoules)
  • Protein 
  • Total fat 
  • Saturated fat
  • Total carbohydrates
  • Sugars 
  • Sodium

Manufacturers may also decide to include other nutrients, including fibre and calcium.

How to read the Nutrition Information Panel

The Nutrition Information Panel, dread no more… we’re about to break it down. It’s the table of numbers you see on the back of a product. It tells you the size of a standard serving of the product and what nutrients are contained in that serving. It’s the simplest and easiest way to compare and choose products with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), sugars, kilojoules, and more fibre. Let’s explain in detail.

Serving Information

Firstly, it’s good to take note of the number of servings, and the serving size, of the product. Serving sizes are generally standardised to make it easier to compare similar products. They are given in units, as an example, cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount – e.g. number of grams (g). The serving size is not a recommendation of how much of the product you should consume; instead, this number reflects the amount that people typically eat.

100g Column and Per Serve Column

It’s important to understand that all the nutrient information shown on the label, refers to the size of the serving – not the entire product. A food label will show nutrient information ‘per serve’, and ‘per 100g’. 

If you’re comparing nutrients of similar food products, use the per 100g column (as serving sizes can differentiate between products). To calculate how much of each nutrient you’ll consume, it’s easiest to use the per serve column. But, be sure to check whether your portion size is the same as the listed serving size.

Energy

A kilojoule is a unit of measure of energy. In Australia, kilojoules (kJ) are used to measure how much energy someone will get from consuming a certain food or drink product. It used to be measured in Calories (Cal). The conversion between kilojoules and calories is: 
1kJ = 0.2 Cal 
1 Cal = 4.2kJ

The amount of kilojoule content of a food product depends on the number of carbohydrates, fats and proteins found within the food, as well as the serving size. Foods that are higher in added sugars and fats tend to have the highest kilojoules. So, a lower energy number usually means lower fat or sugar and is a better overall choice for most people.

Fat

I’m sure we’re all aware that eating too much fat can lead to obesity and other health-related issues. However, fat is an important source of energy, containing twice as much energy per gram as carbohydrates and proteins. Therefore our body does require some fat every day. 

There are three types of fats that are categorised into two groups: bad fats and good fats.

Saturated fat and trans fat are often called ‘bad fats’. This is because they raise cholesterol and increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease. Saturated fats are usually found in:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Ice cream
  • Meats

Trans fats can naturally occur in these products too. But they’re also found in certain types of vegetable oils that have been specially treated, margarine; some types of cookies, crackers, fried foods and snack foods. 

Unsaturated fats are often known as the ‘good fats’ because they don’t raise cholesterol levels as saturated fats do. Foods high in unsaturated fats include vegetable oils, nuts and fish. So, when reading a food label, how do you know what’s a good amount of fat? 

In the ‘total fat’ row, it’s recommended to choose food products that have less than 10g of fat per 100g. For dairy products like milk, yoghurt or ice cream aim for products with less than 2g per 100g; and for cheeses, 15g per 100g is ideal. You will see underneath ‘total fat’ is ‘saturated’; aim for the lowest per 100g of similar products that you compare. Generally, less than 3g per 100g is best.

Carbohydrates and Sugars

Total carbohydrates on the nutritional label include all three types of carbohydrates: sugar, starch and fibre. Carbohydrates are a source of energy and are found in all fruits and vegetables, all bread and grain products, and sugar and sugary foods.

Starch

Foods in high starch include: 

  • Starchy vegetables like corn, winter squash and potatoes 
  • Legumes and pulses, including lentils, beans (kidney, pinto and black beans) and peas (split peas) 
  • Grains, including foods made from wheat like noodles and pasta, bread and crackers, as well as rice

‘Whole grains’ are just that. They are the whole plant that has been harvested and dried with little processing done to it. They provide us with fibre as well as important vitamins like B and E which are needed for optimal health. Examples of whole grains are oats, barley, bulgur, quinoa, brown rice, farro and amaranth.

Fibre

Coming from plant-based foods, fruits, vegetables and whole intact grains, fibre acts like your body’s natural scrub brush; passing through your digestive tract, cleaning out a lot of the bad stuff. 

Foods that are naturally high in fibre and contain at least 2.5g are often labelled as a “good source” and foods containing more than 5g are an “excellent source”.

Sugar

There are two main types of sugar: 

  • Naturally occurring sugars – like those found in milk or fruit
  • Added sugars – which are added during processing (like in soda, sweets and baked goods)

If you’re looking for a healthier choice, it’s best to choose products with the least amount of carbohydrates and limit those that are high in added sugars. 

It isn’t necessary to avoid sugar completely, but limiting your intake of added sugars is best. A smart way to gauge is that if sugar content per 100g is more than 15g, check that sugar (or alternative names for added sugar) is not listed high in the ingredients list. 

Other names for added sugar include: 
Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar.

Fibre

Not all nutritional labels will include fibre. It’s the choice of the manufacturer to include this information or not. It’s recommended to choose breads and cereals that have 3g or more of fibre per serve. Fibre is essential to a healthy digestive system and makes us feel full.

Sodium

The sodium quantity tells us how much salt the product contains. Consuming too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure and can lead to heart, stroke and kidney disease. It’s best to compare similar foods and choose options that have the lowest sodium quantities. Food with less than 400mg per 100g is good, and less than 120mg per 100g is best. 

Other names for high salt ingredients are baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, meat/yeast extract, monosodium glutamate (MSG), onion salt, rock salt, sea salt, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, stock cubes, vegetable salt.

Health Star Rating

By now, we’ve all seen products labelling a certain health star rating. The Health Star Rating System was developed and designed by Australian state and territory governments alongside industry, public health and consumer groups. 

The number of stars determined, and given to a product, is based on a calculation that assesses the nutrients in food. This calculation was developed from consultation from Food Standards Australia New Zealand and other nutrition experts. 

The Health Star Rating System provides consumers with an easier way to compare similar packaged foods to help make healthier choices. Packaged foods are assigned a rating from ½ star to 5 stars – the more stars a product has – the healthier the choice.

Our Top Tips for Healthy Shopping

  • Completely ignore the front of the packaging
  • Some companies use enticing front labels to lure customers into purchasing products with false health claims
  • When reading an ingredients list, look for products that list ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’ as the first ingredient, as opposed to ‘enriched’. ‘Enriched’ means the grain has been processed and its outer layers have been removed – which is the most nutritious part of the grain. 
  • Always read the ingredients list to identify what the product contains most of
  • Ingredients are listed from greatest to least by weight. Always check the first three ingredients for saturated fats, sodium or added sugars
  • Plan meals and snacks for the week 
  • Write a shopping list before you go, and stick to it
  • Don’t shop when you’re hungry – you’ll be tempted to buy unplanned choices 
  • Use your new food label reading skills to work out the healthier choices of similar products 
  • Look for whole-grain varieties of breads and baked goods – choose products with more fibre and less added sugar and salt
  • Look for 50% less fat cheese with 15g fat per 100g or less
  • Don’t fall into the trap of relying on health claims on the front of the packaging to make your food choices. Now that we’ve armed you with label reading knowledge, and shopping tips and tricks, you’re now well on your way to a healthier and more nutritious diet. Nutrition plays such an important part in our life, giving us the energy to perform daily functions and participate in sporting activities.
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