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The last few years have brought a revolution to the supermarket. Literally thousands of new low fat products have emerged in response to consumer demand.

Healthy eating has never been easier or more enjoyable or for that matter more confusing. There is no question that many waist watchers find the supermarket a daunting place. Why? Because it’s all too easy to go astray, despite our best intentions.

Buying the appropriate items by understanding the meaning of food labels is the first step to staying on track.

Food Labels – What Do They Mean?

The proliferation of readily accessible food items has lead to a great deal of confusion amongst shoppers especially when it comes to figuring out what food labels and nutrition information panels really mean.

Claims such as ’99 % fat free’, ‘cholesterol free’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘salt reduced’ can be open to misinterpretation.

How do you determine if the food items you choose are a healthy choice for you and your family?

You are trying to compare two different brands of the same item. What do you look for? Do you look for the fat, sugar, salt, and fibre content? Confused?

This guide will help you through the maze of label confusion.

Ingredient List: All ingredients in the food product must be listed in descending order by weight.

Know Your Ingredients

Fat, salt and sugar may be identified in the ingredient listing under other names. When shopping be aware of the following examples:

Fat – vegetable oil, animal fat, lard, vegetable/animal shortening, coconut oil, butterfat, whole milk solids, copha, tallow

Sugar – sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, golden syrup, honey, malt, molasses and sorbitol

Salt – rock salt, vegetable salt, baking soda, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), yeast extract

Nutrition Information Panel

The information panel on the label shows the content of kilojoules (energy – kJ), protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre, sodium and potassium in an average serve of the food as well as for 100 grams of the product. The “Per 100 grams” column enables you to compare the value of different foods on an even basis. The average serve size will depend on the specific food item.

For example, a 200 gram carton of yoghurt has a stated serve of 100 grams. However you would usually consume the entire 200 gram carton. To calculate the nutritional information contained on the panel all the figures would have to be doubled.

‘Lite’ or ‘Light’

This term is often very confusing as it may refer to the sugar, salt, fat or even the food’s colour or flavour. It does not always mean that a food is low in kilojoules (calories) or fat, as many consumers often believe.

Some examples:

  • ‘Light’ olive oil has a blander mild flavour but still the same amount of fat and kilojoules/calories as regular olive oil.
  • ‘Light’ potato chips are lightly salted and thinly-sliced; however, the fat is the same as regular chips.
  • ‘Light’ cheese has less fat and occasionally less salt; however, the fat content can still be high.

Our recommendation is to read the label carefully before you decide to buy! Whichever characteristic of the food is being ‘lightened’, should be stated along with a comparison with the regular foodstuff.

‘Reduced Fat’

Reduced-fat foods usually contain 25% or 33% less fat than their regular counterparts. The food must not contain more than 75% of the total fat content of the same quantity of the regular food product or reference food. Note that ‘reduced-fat’ foods are not necessarily low in fat. Examples are reduced-fat milk, cheese, margarine spreads, mayonnaise, sour cream and dairy desserts.

‘Low Fat’

‘Low Fat’ foods must contain no more than 3 g total fat per 100 grams of product; or no more than 1.5 g of fat if a liquid food.

‘Fat Free’

‘Fat free’ foods must contain no more than 0.15 g fat per 100 g of food. Note that fat-free products (such as soft drinks, fruit juices, bread, pasta and alcoholic drinks) can still be high in calories/kilojoules if they contain large amounts of sugar (or alcohol) or if large amounts are consumed.

‘. . . % Fat-Free’

The food must meet the requirements for ‘low fat’ and must carry a statement of the actual fat content (expressed as a percentage of the food) close to the claim.

Example: A food labelled as ‘97% fat free’ means that the food contains 3% fat or 3 grams of fat per 100 g of product. However, if 200 grams of this food were eaten then this would add up to 6 grams of fat which could be a significant amount if you are trying to reduce your fat intake. Low-fat food products can also be high in calories if they contain large amounts of sugar or other carbohydrates.

‘Cholesterol Free’ or ‘No Cholesterol’

Cholesterol occurs only in foods of animal origin, so fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and foods made from plants are automatically free of cholesterol.

This food label can be confusing as it is often interpreted to mean no- or low-fat. Many foods are free of cholesterol such as oils, vegetable margarines, avocado and nuts but remain high in fat.

‘Cooked in Vegetable Oil’

Does not necessarily mean ‘polyunsaturated’ or ‘mono-unsaturated’. One of the most common oils used to fry high fat snacks and fast foods is palm oil, which is 50 % saturated. While it is a vegetable oil, it differs greatly from the unsaturated vegetable oils such as Canola, soya bean and sunflower oil.

If one of these oils is used in the food, it will usually be listed on the food item. If not, you can assume it is palm oil or a hydrogenated (hardened and therefore saturated) vegetable oil.

‘Polyunsaturated’

To be labelled ‘polyunsaturated’ at least 40% of the total fat content of a food must be polyunsaturated; and no more than 20% of the total fat content should be saturated fat. Polyunsaturated margarines, spreads, mayonnaise, oils, salad dressings and biscuits are often perceived to mean low in fat and therefore ‘non-fattening’. Not so. Excessive intake of any type of fat or oil will result in weight gain.

‘No Added Sugar’

The food has no added sugar (sucrose or other simple sugars such as fructose, glucose, dextrose, lactose), corn syrup, golden syrup, molasses, honey, treacle, malt, malt extract, or fruit juice. Although there are no added sugars these products may still contain a significant amount of sugar which occurs naturally in the specific food item.

‘Unsweetened’

The food has none of the above-mentioned sweeteners and no artificial sweeteners.

‘Diet’

This applies to foods which contain at least 40 % less kilojoules/calories (or 20% less kilojoules/calories if a liquid food) than the regular or reference food product. There must be a statement of comparison with the reference food. Examples are ‘Diet Coke’ and ‘Diet Jelly’.

‘Natural’

Foods containing this label may make a food item sound as if the food is healthy and good for you, but may be no different to a product without the title. For example, a health bar may state that the all ingredients are natural however this does not mean that the product is low in fat or kilojoules/calories. Note: Many naturally occurring plants contain toxic substances detrimental to our health.

‘Net Weight’

The net weight of a food product refers to the minimum weight contained in the package. The actual weight usually is a little heavier and in some cases can be as much as 25% more – particularly food bars, cakes, biscuits and other bakery items. However, the nutritional data and serving size is usually calculated on the net weight. Significant extra kilojoules/calories can be unwittingly consumed. It pays to check the weights on your own scales.

Be Label Wise

For maximum information cross check the nutrition information panel with the ingredient list. Then you can read labels to choose products that suit your particular nutrition needs.

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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