Practical Tips for Label Reading

Guest Post from Sally Marchini – Dietitian and person with type 1 diabetes

My very first blog for Diabetes Counselling Online was written on label reading because as a dietitian I have found it is such a popular topic with clients, to help them be clear on how to make healthier food choices when shopping. To help demonstrate the points made in that first blog, I thought we’d take it a step further, using some actual examples to help make those ‘2 easy steps’ even clearer. We’ll also take a quick peek at the new Australian Government Health Star rating system.

The main reason we read labels for diabetes, other than to work out how much carbohydrate is in the food we’re eating, is to make healthier choices for heart health.

Hopefully, you know already that we need to ignore the appealing words and pictures on the front of packets, designed by marketing teams, to have you choose to buy their product. The best place to know if a product is a good one for you is actually to look at the back of the pack, where you’ll find the ‘Ingredients Listing’ and the ‘Nutrition Information Panel’.

The Ingredients Listing

Most people that I explain label reading to overlook this important aspect. In Australia, Consumer Protection law means that ingredients are listed based on how much of the ingredient there is in the product, starting with the main ingredient and working down to the ingredient there is least of in the product.  Often, the listing will tell you how much as a percentage of at least the first few ingredients, and it’s worth noticing those % amounts, to help put the other ingredient amounts into perspective.

A good starting place is to look at the first three to four ingredients, keeping an eye out for ADDED FATS and SUGARS. These fats and sugars could be hidden using words that might make them sound healthy, or to trick you into not recognising them as fats or sugars. If they’re up there with those first three to four ingredients then it’s likely there’s more in there that we’d like there to be.

The fats may be called ‘vegetable oils’, ‘seed oils’, ‘copha’, ‘palm oil’, ‘coconut oil’, ‘shortening’, ‘butter’; and more. And sugars go by many, many names so don’t be misled by various ‘syrups’, ‘honey’, ‘maltose’, ‘dextrose’ and even ‘fruit concentrate’, as well as just ‘sugar’.

Some ingredients will affect the readings in the nutrition information panel. Nuts and seeds are a great example of this as, although great for heart health, they have a high percentage of fat (mostly good fats).

Breakfast cereal is a good example where you can see there are no added fats in the product, but when you look at the nutrition information panel it says 17.2g/100g (17.2%) total fat. If you’d gone directly to the nutrition information panel without checking the ingredients listing first, you may have put this packet back, when actually it’s a good one for us, because the fats listed in the Ingredients list are actually ALL healthy fats, from the nuts and seeds, and we do need some fats in our diet..

The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)

Once we’ve determined what the main ingredients are in our product we can move onto the nutrition information panel. In Australia, we’re provided with two options here:  the ‘per serve’ column and the ‘per 100g’ column.  In my experience, most people don’t ever notice what the per serve amount is, even to work out carb amounts, as we choose our serves either by following the Australian Dietary Guidelines or by how hungry we feel. Also, serve sizes vary between different brands and even for different options within the same brand so it just doesn’t work to compare products on this basis. Best bet is just to ignore the ‘Per Serve’ column and focus on the ‘Per 100g’ column which effectively gives you a percentage of the product.

Total Fat, Saturated Fat and Sodium

The three numbers I encourage my clients to remember are 10, 2 and 400. Ten, two and four hundred. We’re looking for less than 10g/100g (or 10%) Total Fat, less than 2g/100g (or 2%) Saturated Fat and less than 400mg/100g (0.4%) Sodium. These numbers are a guide only, so try to apply common sense for ingredients that might throw these guide numbers out.

Total carbohydrate and Sugars

When it comes to carbohydrate, we can use the percentage number provided to work out the carb amount in the amount we’ve chosen by weight. See this blog for further info on this point.

When it comes to the word ‘sugar’ under that carbohydrate listing, it’s terribly misleading. That ‘sugar’ word it contains not only the ADDED sugars that we were noticing in the ingredients listing but also naturally occurring sugars which may be good for us (such as milk sugars and fruit sugars). If you feel you ‘need’ a number for maximum sugar in product, choose 10 (10% or 10g/100g) but be aware that the percentage listed may be influenced by natural sugars…  It is hoped that one day this ‘sugars’ word will be made clearer on our labels.

Fibre should always be as high as possible, depending on the product you’re comparing.

It is worth taking the time to check the nutrition panel details. Just as an aside, try to look for wholegrain flour (rather than refined flour) in the ingredients listings for products like crackers. And consider that a piece of grainy toast will have more fibre and less sodium than most crackers, so that may be a better option for you.

Also watch the use of brackets which sometimes push the SUGAR and FAT words to what looks like further down the listing, misleading you into thinking there’s not much of them in there. This often happens on breakfast cereal packets.

What about the new Health Star Rating?

This is something you can look out for on the front of packs as it’s slowly being included on more and more products in the Australian market. Simply put, the more stars that are highlighted, the healthier the product is for all of us. Try to choose products with a 4 or 5 health star rating.  You can read more about this here. And Accredited Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby wrote a good explanatory piece that I encourage you to read too.

The other couple of ‘front of pack’ helpful logos to watch out for are, the ‘glycemic index logo’ and the’ heart health tick’. Not all products that deserve these logos have them on yet, so it’s worth the effort of remembering to read the ingredients listing first, then look for 10, 2 and 400 on the NIP (remembering that exceptions occur, as in the breakfast cereal above, where total fats at 17% are greater than 10%, but it is still a healthy choice).

If you’re unsure how this sits with your own medical conditions, I encourage you to check with your own dietitian. Everyone can benefit from an individualised consultation with an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Sally 🙂

Sally Marchini Marchini Nutrition has had type 1 diabetes for close to 40 years and coeliac disease for many years too

1 Comment

  1. heltweet on June 1, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks Sally. 🙂