Advertisement

How to read nutritional labels (correctly)

How to read nutritional labels (correctly)
Shutterstock

It can be so overwhelming when you’re reading food labels at the supermarket that you may overlook the nutritional facts. Buzzwords like ‘free-range’, ‘all-natural’, or ‘fat-free’ all sound like healthy choices, and sometimes they are, but other times they can be misleading. The truth is some food companies will choose to highlight one or two ingredients to persuade you (the consumer) to buy the product and hopefully not read through the rest of the ingredients. This makes food labels confusing and misleading.

So, to understand and read them correctly, we spoke with two registered dietitians and nutritionists who told us what popular nutrition label words mean and tips for smart food shopping.

You assume fat- and sugar-free products are healthy

You assume fat- and sugar-free products are healthy
Getty Images

Depending on your dietary needs, cutting back on sugar or fat could help you reach your health goals. But be careful: reduced-fat products tend to have extra sodium or sugar, and lower sugar often means more fat or salt, says professor of nutrition at Neumann University, Libby Mills. “Whatever they’re taking out, they typically add something else to add flavour,” she says. Plus, you might actually find yourself more satisfied with a full-fat product. For instance, if a full-cream yoghurt fills you up, where a low-fat one finds you reaching for something else to eat, stick with the fattier version.

You don’t note the serving size

You don’t note the serving size

When you hunker down with a bag of chips, you could be blowing way past the recommended serving size, meaning you’re eating more kilojoules and fat than you thought, says Jen Bruning. For an easy, no-measure trick, she recommends noting the number of servings in a packet, then working out how much one serving would be, like one-third of a bag. Be extra careful with packages that look like a single serving. “Even with small items like chocolate bars, it’s important to see how many servings are in your hand,” she says. “Just because it can fit in your hand or you can eat it in one sitting doesn’t mean it fits one serving size by nutrition.”

You think ‘all-natural’ and ‘organic’ are the same

You think ‘all-natural’ and ‘organic’ are the same
Shutterstock

Certified organic products have gone through an application and been inspected by various bodies to meet the criteria – organic plants don’t use synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and meats are from animals that eat organic feed and haven’t been given antibiotics or hormones. However, the label ‘all-natural’ doesn’t have such strict guidelines. “All-natural doesn’t really mean a lot to us,” says Mills. We know that it means they’ve been minimally processed, but to what degree that ‘minimally’ means to each manufacturer may be a little different, she says. Check instead for specific labels you care about, like antibiotic- or GMO-free.

Now discover 12 organic foods nutritionists don’t waste their money on.

You imagine free-range animals frolicking in fields

You imagine free-range animals frolicking in fields
Getty Images

Free-range animals haven’t been raised in cages, but that doesn’t mean they’re free to wander outside whenever they want. “It doesn’t guarantee that the animal has access to the great wilderness outdoors at all. They may be in a roofed building their entire life,” says Mills. “They may have a door to have some sunlight access, but it doesn’t guarantee every animal gets to go out.”

Regardless whether they’re free-range or not, find out 14 reasons not to throw out egg shells.

You think all sugar is created equally

You think all sugar is created equally
Getty Images

Sure, foods like milk and fruit contain natural sugars, but they also come packed with other important nutrients. On the other hand, added sugar like white sugar, granulated sugar, corn syrup and honey are basically empty calories. “When making a judgment of too much or too little sugar, it’s deceptive,” says Mills. “You have to look at the actual ingredients in the product.” If sugar is listed in the first half of the ingredients, you can bet it’ll pack a big caloric punch, she says, but sugar in the last half isn’t as significant.

Here’s what happens to your skin when you eat sugar.

Advertisement

You think ‘made with real fruit’ is basically a packaged apple

You think ‘made with real fruit’ is basically a packaged apple
Shutterstock

A product claiming ‘made with real fruit’ does indeed contain fruit, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also include added sugars or artificial flavour. “It can say ‘made with real fruit,’ and real fruit is included in that product, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things,” says Bruning. “You still want to check the ingredient list and see what else is there.”

You think all wheat bread is a superfood

You think all wheat bread is a superfood
Shutterstock

Seek out breads labelled 100% wholemeal or 100 % whole grain to pack the biggest health punch. During processing, grain kernels are separated into three parts: germ, endosperm and bran. Most products lose most of the bran and some germ – which contain important vitamins, protein, fats, and fibre – but whole grains keep the amounts intact. But look closely: if a label just says ‘whole grain’ without specifying 100%, it could contain other, more refined flours, too. “If it says contains whole grains, that means somewhere in that ingredient list you’ll find all three parts of a whole grain,” says Bruning. “It might be left whole or processed into flour, but it’s there.” The same goes for multigrain bread, which just means it has different types of grains, regardless of how processed they are.

You assume gluten-free is healthier

You assume gluten-free is healthier
Shutterstock

Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, there’s no need to cut gluten from your diet. In fact, your waistline could actually take a hit if you replace regular bread with gluten-free versions. Gluten helps bread keep its shape, so manufacturers add ingredients like thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers to get the right texture, and processed/vegetable fat and sugar to make them more palatable. “A lot of [gluten-free] bread products have a lot of extra fat compared to non-gluten-free products,” says Mills. “So you really need to watch for it in a big way.”

You don’t look at the fat breakdown

You don’t look at the fat breakdown
Shutterstock

Total fat is listed on a nutrition label because fat has more kilojoules per gram than carbs or protein, so high-fat foods tend to be high in kilojoules, says Bruning. But scan down a bit further and you’ll see it broken down into saturated fats and trans fats. “Those are called out because saturated fats, and especially trans fats, are linked to higher incidents of heart disease,” says Bruning. Some manufacturers also choose to list ‘good’ monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which are actually beneficial for your heart and cholesterol.

Never miss a deal again - sign up now!

Connect with us: