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How to Read Food Labels

Deciphering Food Labels For Better Choices

You’ve made a new commitment to healthy eating. Perhaps it’s due to having bariatric surgery. Maybe a friend’s wedding is coming up. Or perhaps you’d simply love to be lighter and fitter.

You started off with great enthusiasm but, after ten minutes standing in the supermarket comparing products, you’re starting to think that learning a foreign language would be easier than understanding food labels!

Does ‘cholesterol free’ mean the same as ‘fat free’? Should you pick the one that is ‘lite’ or the one that’s ‘low fat’? What does ‘low’ mean here anyway?

You’re not alone in finding food labels tricky. In theory, the food label is there to help consumers make choices about their diet. In practice, food companies often massage the required information to present their product in the best possible light.

Thankfully, it is possible to decipher food labels. And it’s worth the effort so you can make the best food choices to live well.

What Do Food Labels Mean?

In Australia, most packaged foods must carry clear labelling that:

  • Lists the ingredients

  • Describes the food accurately (raspberry jam must contain raspberries)

  • Identifies any additives

  • Obeys the Food Standards Code if it makes any claims about its nutrition content or health benefits

  • Clearly displays a nutrition information panel.

Claims on the Packaging

Be a little suspicious of prominent, eye-catching claims on products. Companies are quite good at highlighting their product’s benefits and distracting you from its flaws. A claim like ‘98% fat free’ may be designed to distract you from the amount of sugar they’ve added to make it taste good!

Use the Nutrition Information Panel

If you’re trying to work out how much salt, sugar or fat is really in a product, this panel is your friend. It’s a little table, often tucked away on the side or the back of a product, that lists the ingredients and breaks them down into grams of protein, fat, fibre, carbohydrates and sugars. There’s also information the number of kilojoules and the amount of sodium (salt).

Compare 100g Servings of Similar Foods

The nutrition information panel will show how much is in a recommended serving size (chosen by the company) and in 100g or 100ml.

Let’s say you’re comparing two cereals because you want to cut down on sugar. Cereal A uses a serving size of 45g and has 7.5g of sugar. Cereal B uses a serving size of 40g and has 8.4g of sugar.

You could drag your mind back to your high school maths class to work out which product has more sugar but you don’t actually need to. Both labels have a second column telling you how much sugar is in 100g of their cereal, allowing you to compare products easily. When you do this, it’s instantly clear that Cereal A has 16.7g sugar per 100g and Cereal B has 21.1g.

Be vigilant about how many servings you’re eating. Sometimes companies will package multiple servings to look like one, such as describing a serving as one biscuit but packaging them two at a time, almost guaranteeing you’ll eat both (they know you’re only human!).

Claims About Fat Content

Many confusing claims are made about fat content.

A ‘low fat’ food must have less than 3g of fat per 100g (or less than 1.5g if it’s a liquid).

If something is ‘reduced fat’, then ask what it’s being compared to (it’s usually the company’s regular version of the same product). The reduced fat version must contain at least 25 percent less fat than the comparison product. If you get both products and compare the 100g column in the nutrition panel, the reduced fat version must have at least three fewer grams of fat per 100g. Of course, if the regular product is very high in fat, then the reduced fat version may still contain a lot of fat!

When it comes to ‘lite’ or ‘light’ foods, the benefit depends on what’s being lightened — it could be fat but it could just as easily be flavour or salt. So, light cream cheese has about half the fat of its regular equivalent and provides almost a 40% drop in kilojoules, making it a good choice. But lite olive oil just has a blander flavour than its regular equivalent meaning there’s no difference in fat content or kilojoules — you might as well buy the tasty version!

As for cholesterol claims, it’s more useful to go back to the nutrition information panel and choose foods that are low in saturated fat and low in trans fat, since that’s what matters most in the long-run.

No guide to healthy eating would be complete without a reminder that some of the healthiest foods are fruits and vegetables — and there’s no need to decipher food labels on those!


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