How to read food labels

Food labels give a lot of information – but what should you look for? Angela Phillips explains.

When making decisions at the supermarket, it can be hard to take the time to compare labels to make healthy choices. Aiming to reduce the number of processed foods in your trolley is a great start, but if you do have time to take a further look, there are a few different sources of information on each label, such as the ingredient list, the nutrition panel, the percentage of your recommended daily intake the food product provides and, the most recent addition, the health star rating.

The main aim is to still go for lots of fresh, wholesome foods, but if you’re looking at packaged products, the health star rating system is a quick and easy reference tool and is my personal favourite for busy parents. Ratings are based on energy (calories/kilojoules), as well as unhelpful nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, along with beneficial factors such as fibre, protein, fats, fruit, and vegetables. Foods are ranked out of 5, and for some products there is also a small box with added information on the energy, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium (salt) per 100g. You can easily view different cereals and see that one has 4 stars versus another which has 4.5 stars. Examples of 5-star foods include roasted chickpeas or fava beans, unsalted nuts, All Bran, and Weetbix.

A huge positive about this scheme is that it seems to have altered some companies’ recipes, including Nutri-Grain, which reduced sugar and boosted fibre content to ensure they met the 4 star criteria. If your children only eat cereals with a 4-star rating, try mixing their 4-star choice with a 5-star cereal.

As with all quick-view nutrition information, there are less suitable foods that fall through the cracks. One example is fruit juice, which can get a 4-star rating. A quick read of the “per 100g” information is helpful. It is also important to remember star ratings are based within a category. So a 4-star rated cereal is not comparable to a 4-star rated yoghurt.

The ingredients list is also useful, especially if you remember they are listed in order of the largest quantity ingredient to the smallest. This can be helpful when checking where sugar is listed when you have noticed there is a high sugar content. Thankfully more and more food companies are keeping colourants and preservatives out, so keep an eye out for these if you can.

The information under “percentage of our daily intake” tells how much that food product contributes to the average person’s overall daily intake. This can be misleading, as requirements for a 75kg male are very different to a 60kg female. Complicating this further is adults versus children! In fact, even two people of the same gender and weight would usually not have the same nutritional requirements.

The tried and true “nutritional panel” is very helpful if you know what to look for. This panel must provide a breakdown per 100g and it gives an easy comparison point between different products. For example, a cereal may state a serving is ½ cup compared to another that says it is ¾ cup. However, typically you would pour the same portion in your bowl regardless of what the suggested portion is.

This list above right provides a general guide to know what to look for when reading nutritional panels.

Misleading claims

There are a few claims you may see on packaging that can be easily misinterpreted, such as:

Lite – referring to the colour of oil, rather than the fat content.

Vegetable oil – which could be mainly palm oil resulting in high saturated fat levels.

Low fat – in some instances can mean more sugar.

No added sugar – such as fruit juice, which has similar sugar to fizzy drinks even if no sugar is added.

Try these instead…

Some suggested substitutions that could improve the foods you buy:

Biscuits Alternative: Healthy breakfast cereals. Benefits: More fibre, more nutrients and less sugar.

Muesli bars Alternative: Nut bars (if allowed). Benefits: More protein.

Fruit strips/leathers Alternative: Fresh fruit. Benefits: Less sugar.

Potato chips Alternative: Home popped popcorn. Benefits: More fibre, less fat, less salt.

Home baking ingredients Alternative: Try baking with 1/3 less sugar. Benefits: Less sugar.

Fruit yoghurt Alternative: Natural yoghurt – add chopped fruit. Benefits: Less sugar, more fibre.

so what’s the most important factor?

This will vary from person to person depending on their personal health. For children, I recommend you aim to keep sugar, sodium, and saturated fat low. We know that poly- and monounsaturated fats provide health benefits and can be filling, so don’t assume low-fat is best; instead, try healthy food sources such as avocado, fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. If you have a health condition, ensure you still read information specific to you (for example, if you have diabetes, check the sugar per 100g).

Total fat

Aim for <10g per 100g

Note If more than 10g total fat, ensure saturated fat less than ¹/³ of total fat

Saturated fat

Aim for <2g per 100g

Note More important for you than total fat


Aim for <10g per 100g in general

<15g per 100g for cereals and yoghurt

<2.5g per 100g for drinks
Note If more than 10g sugar, ensure fruit or milk appears before sugar in ingredients list


Aim for >_ 6g per 100g

Note Aim for at least 30g fibre per day


Aim for <120mg per 100g (considered low)

>600mg per 100g (considered high)

Note Recommended daily intake is less than 2400mg but if hypertensive (high blood pressure) aim for less than 1500mg

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