Australia's purest water

By Dr Joanna McMillan

Joanna is a registered nutritionist and dietician with a PhD in nutritional science from the University of Sydney. She is the resident nutrition expert for Channel 9’s Today Show, contributor to magazines including Life Etc and Slimming & Health and author of numerous books including Inner Health Outer Beauty, Star Foods and the Low GI Diet.

In generations past it was not all that difficult to make food choices — you ate the foods available around you. The trouble today is that we have such an enormous choice of products, many of which bombard us with persuasive advertising, that it makes it extremely difficult to make the best choices all of the time. One of the sure fire ways to find your way through the maze and pick the products that best support your health, is to learn to read the labels.

This isn’t as complicated as it may seem at first. Provided you know what to look for you can quickly assess a product and make a decision on whether to buy in a few seconds. Forget the complex looking table with grams of fat, carbohydrate and so on, at least to make your initial judgement. Instead go straight to the ingredients list. If it reads like a list of foods you recognise and could buy for use at home, then it’s much more likely to be a good choice. At this point you can use the nutrition table to evaluate further if you like. On the other hand if the ingredients list includes one or more items that sound as if they belong in a science lab, put it back. For example the following ingredients lists are real and come from two snack products:

Snack 1:

Ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oil, Salt
Nutrition per 100g 2129kj and 32g fat

Snack 2:

Ingredients: Corn, Vegetable Oil, Cheese Powder, Salt, Buttermilk Powder, Wheat Flour, Whey Protein Concentrate, Tomato Powder, Flavour Enhancers (621, 627, 631), Onion Powder, Whey Powder, Garlic Powder, Dextrose, Sugar, Emulsifier (339), Food Acids (270, 330), Natural Flavour, Spices, Colours (129, 150, 110), Nutrition per 100g 2175kJ & 27g fat

Which one would you rather eat? You will no doubt have guessed what the first snack is… regular potato chips. Not the healthiest food in the world but as an occasional snack, or at a party, I’d rather be eating potatoes fried in oil and flavoured with salt, than the concoction listed in snack 2. Can you even hazard a guess as to what that one is?! I won’t name the brand — there are lots that fall into the same abysmal category — but suffice to say it is a flavoured corn snack. Corn may be the first ingredient but there are also 9 additives, including the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG (disguised here by only giving it’s E number 621). I use this example because you can see that if you had looked only at the nutrition information, there is little difference between the products — in fact you may have selected snack 2 on the basis of a slightly lower fat content.

This is why you must look at the ingredients first to ensure you are eating real food, and only then look to the nutrition factors to improve your choices further. Lastly the ingredients list is in order of weight therefore the first few ingredients are the most plentiful. As we’ll see below that can useful in determining how much sugar, or other ingredients, are in the product.

How to use the nutrition table

If you keep things simple, eat real food and don’t rely too heavily on packaged foods, nutrition tables won’t provide much more that you need to know. However there is valuable information you can glean from them, particularly for packaged foods, which we all include to some degree in our diets.

Since most of us are at least tyring to control our weight, if not actively lose weight, the energy of the food product is crucial. By looking at the ‘per 100g’ column of the table you can work out whether this product has a high, medium or low energy density — that is how many kilojoules there are per 100g of the food. In other words it’s a way of comparing two food products and seeing which is the more kilojoule-packed on a weight for weight basis. This also allows you to see through the deceptive low fat products that may indeed be low fat but are not low in kilojoules. If you try to eat more low energy dense foods, and choose only small and/or infrequent portions of the high energy-dense foods, you are well on your way to helping control your weight.

Read the ‘per 100g’ column. If the kJ figure is: Energy density of the food is: Examples
>1200kJ high apple pie, double cheeseburger with bacon, cakes, pies & doughnuts, chips
750-1200kJ medium sausages, chicken nuggets, bread, Ice cream, battered fried fish
<750kJ low fruit & veg, lean meats, fish & seafood, yoghurt, boiled pasta & rice

Read the ‘per 100g’ column. If the kJ figure is: Energy density of the food is: Examples >1200kJ apple pie double cheeseburger with bacon cakes, pies & doughnuts chips 750-1200kJ sausages, chicken nuggets bread Ice cream battered fried fish <750kJ fruit & veg lean meats, fish & seafood yoghurt boiled pasta & rice.

Next up you can check out how much fat, and more importantly what types of fat are present. Again I recommend you stick to looking at the ‘per 100g’ column as there is often a discrepancy between your serving size and that specified by the manufacturer. You can see the grams of fat per 100g of the food, and there is usually a listing of at least saturated fat, and sometimes the other types of fat. If you are comparing two products choose the one with less saturated fat.

For sweet products you may like to know how much sugar is present. The problem here is that the grams of sugar given in the nutrition table does not distinguish between sugars naturally present in foods such as fruit and milk, and refined sugars added to the product. I always therefore look first to the ingredients list — if sugar (or one of the other many names for sugar) comes in the first three ingredients you know this a high added-sugar product. You can however use the grams of sugar to compare two similar products such as flavoured yoghurt and choose the one with the lower value. Finally be aware that many products ho advertise a status of ‘no added sugar’ use artificial sweeteners instead. Not being a believer that we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ without consequences, I’m not a fan of these.

For more information on how to read food labels I recommend the book Read The Label by Judy Davie (Random House Australia 2008).