How to Read Food Labels

With the increasing emphasis on healthy eating, food labels contain more and more information – and have simultaneously become more and more difficult to understand and interpret!

Healthy eating has never been easier or more enjoyable… or more confusing. Many people aiming to lose weight or achieve weight balance find the supermarket extremely daunting, as it’s all too easy to be led astray by food labels and packaging, despite your best intentions.

Understanding the meaning of food labels (and deciphering fact from fictitious marketing speak) is the first step to staying on track with your health goals.

Food Labels – What Do They Mean?

There’s a great deal of confusion amongst shoppers when it comes to figuring out what food labels and nutrition information panels actually mean.

Claims such as ‘99% fat-free’, ‘cholesterol-free’, ‘no added sugar’, and ‘salt reduced’ aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and can be open to misinterpretation.

So how do you determine if the food items you’re choosing are a healthy choice for you and your family?

Consider this. If you’re comparing two different brands of the same item, what do you look for? Do you consider the fat, sugar, sodium and fibre content? Or are you baffled about where to even begin?

Let’s learn how to decipher the maze of label confusion.

Ingredient List: All ingredients in each food product are listed in descending order by weight, so the first ingredients you see listed will always be the most prominent foods contained in the product.

Know Your Ingredients

Fat, salt and sugar are often listed under different names in the ingredients list – a clever marketing move, but it makes things even more confusing! When you’re shopping, be aware of the following names used for these ingredients:

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, sorbitol

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

If any of these names appear in the ingredients panel, keep in mind they’re nasties which aren’t providing you much (if any) nutritional value. If they’re one of the first few ingredients listed in the panel, it might be best to steer clear of that product.

Nutrition Information Panel

The information panel on a food label shows the amount of kilojoules (energy – kJ), protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre, sodium and potassium in an average serving of the food, as well as the amount of each contained in 100 grams of the product. The “Per 100 grams” column allows you to compare the nutritional value of different foods or brands given the same quantity of food. The average serving size will vary depending on the specific food and brand you’re looking at.

For example, a 200g carton of yoghurt has recommended serving size of 100g. However, you’d usually consume the entire 200g carton. To calculate the nutritional information contained in your 200g serving, you’d need to double all the figures on the nutritional label.

‘Lite’ or ‘Light’

This term is often very confusing as it can refer to the sugar, salt, fat or even the food’s colour or flavour content. And surprisingly, it doesn’t always mean a food is low in kilojoules (calories) or fat, as many people believe.

Some examples:

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

Read every label carefully before you decide to buy a product! Whichever characteristic of the food is being ‘lightened’ should be stated, along with a comparison against the regular alternative of the food in question.

‘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 can’t contain more than 3g total fat per 100g of product; or no more than 1.5g of fat if you’re looking at a liquid food.


‘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. Often fat-free products have significant amounts of sugar to “compensate” for the loss of flavour from the reduced fat content, so be sure to check the nutritional label!

‘. . . % Fat-Free’

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

A food labelled as ‘97% fat-free’ means the food contains 3% fat or 3 g of fat per 100 g of product. However, if 200 grams of this food were eaten, this would add up to 6 g of fat – which is a significant amount if you’re 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 animal foods, so fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and foods made from plants are automatically free from cholesterol.

This food claim can be confusing as it’s often interpreted to mean the product contains no- or low-fat. Many foods are free of cholesterol such as oils, vegetable margarines, avocado and nuts, yet remain high in fat.

‘Cooked in Vegetable Oil’

This food claim doesn’t 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 fat – making it a less than ideal choice. While it is technically a vegetable oil, it differs greatly from unsaturated vegetable oils such as Canola, soya bean and sunflower oil.

If one of these oils is used in the food, it’s usually listed on the food label. If the vegetable oil isn’t specified, you can assume it’s palm oil or a hydrogenated (hardened and therefore saturated) vegetable oil.


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’

This label means the food contains no added sugars (sucrose or other simple sugars such as fructose, glucose, dextrose, lactose), corn syrup, golden syrup, molasses, honey, treacle, malt, malt extract, or fruit juice. However, although it contains no added sugars, these products can still contain a significant amount of natural sugars, or even artificial sweeteners which have been found to have a detrimental effect on gut health, so be sure to check the label for these too!


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


This term applies to foods which contain at least 40% less kilojoules/calories (or 20% less kilojoules/calories if it’s a liquid food) than the regular or reference food alternative. There must be a statement of comparison with the reference food. For example, ‘Diet Coke’ and ‘Diet Jelly’ contain far fewer calories than their regular counterparts.


Foods containing this claim often sound like they’re healthy and good for you, however they may be no different to another product without this claim. For example, a health bar can state all its ingredients are natural, however this doesn’t mean the product is low in fat or kilojoules/calories.

Note: Many naturally occurring plants contain toxic substances detrimental to your health, so “natural” isn’t the claim to fame we often believe it to be.

‘Net Weight’

The net weight of a food product refers to the minimum weight contained in the package. The actual weight is usually a little heavier – in some cases it can be up to 25% more, particularly in bars, cakes, biscuits and other bakery items.

However, the nutritional data and serving size is usually calculated on the net weight, so can be misleading. You can end up consuming significantly more kilojoules/calories unwittingly, so it pays to check the weight on your own scales.

Be Label Wise…

Be sure to cross check the nutrition information panel with the ingredient list. This will help you read labels and choose products which suit your particular nutrition needs.

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