How to read nutritional labels
Calories and Kilojoules are the amount of energy a food contains when its eaten.
If you're looking to lose or gain weight it can be helpful to know how many calories you need to meet your goal. The government recommend a daily average of 8700 kJ per day for a woman.
In order to lose half a kilo, eatforhealth.gov.au advises eating 2000kJ per day less than you consume. So, if you're following that path, counting kilojoules and knowing how to read food labels is a must.
Food labels can be tricky
Australian food labels generally have two columns: One shows the nutritional value of a single serve and the other shows the nutritional value per 100g/ml.
It's important to know the difference and have your glasses on when you read the label. Why? Because it's easy to get confused.
Take rice crackers and yoghurt as an example…
Sakata Plain Rice Crackers contain 1680kJ per 100g and 421kJ per serve (approx 25 crackers).
Chobani No Fat Plain Greek Yogurt contains 240kJ per 100g and 408kJ per serve.
You could be forgiven for reading the per serve nutritional value of the crackers and thinking it's the whole packet, and misreading the yoghurt as being 240kJ per pot.
Where it gets even more tricky is when the nutrition panel breaks the contents down into two (or more) serves when the chances of you eating half the pack is slim.
For example, a Cadbury's Twirl chocolate bar contains two smallish sticks of chocolate. Each one is considered a serve. So if you read the label without realising, you might think the whole bar contained 438kJ. But you'd be wrong.
Each stick contains 438kJ plus 5.8g fat.
So, gobble the whole thing (which you're likely to) and you just swallowed 876kJ and 11g of fat, probably without realising.
Total fat and saturated fat
According to the Heart Foundation, eating too much saturated fat increases your LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels. So how much is too much?
Nutrition Australia recommends no more than 30 per cent of our daily intake should come from fat, which adds up to around 70g per day. Only 10 per cent of your total intake should be made up of saturated fat.
When you're checking the nutrition label be sure to read the Total Fat and note the Saturated Fat which is often next to or just below the Total Fat.
Sugar and carbohydrates
When it comes to nutritional labelling in Australia, the section that states carbohydrates and sugar can sometimes be the most confusing.
Here's how to read the nutritional panel so you can understand the health value of your food.
All food (bar black tea and coffee) contains carbohydrates – it's what the body converts into glucose and uses as energy for the muscles and brain. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate but not all carbs are sugar and not all sugars are bad.
Here's the simplest way to figure it out.
Some foods contain a lot of carbs that are mostly made up of sugar – think biscuits, cakes and lollies.
Other foods contain natural sugars - think milk, fruit and 'sweet' veg such as carrots and pumpkin.
All the foods mentioned above will have a reasonably high carbohydrate level, but the main difference is that the foods in the second list also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals which makes them a more rounded and therefore healthier choice.
Carbohydrates are not the enemy, but it's useful to know where they're coming from, hence our food labels are required to break them down into carbs and sugar content.
1 cup (140g) of chopped, raw carrots provides 7g carbs, 7g sugar, 5.5g fibre and 186kJ.
9 jelly beans contain 18.3g carbs, 12.2g sugar, 0 fibre and 312kJ.
You can see how the higher the carbohydrates the higher the overall kilojoules. You could eat double the carrots or half the jelly beans and consume the same-ish amount of carbohydrates and calories, but one will also provide you with vitamins and fibre whereas the other is pure carbs.
You know which one to choose, right?
How fibre helps
You can also see from the above comparison that not only can you eat way more carrots for far less sugar, but the fibre content in a food is worth noting too.
Fibre helps to slow the digestive process which effectively means it will take longer to burn off the carbs. The result? A fuller belly for longer which equals a lower likelihood of reaching for a snack later on.
What about sodium?
Nutrition Australia states that 460-920g daily value of sodium is adequate for our health. That equates to 1.15-2.3g of salt per day.
Excess salt consumption raises your blood pressure and hypertension is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.
Keeping your intake to 4g of sodium per day or less is key. Most Australians consume around 10g so halving your intake is a good start.
Note: Most food labelling in Australia will state sodium in mg: 4g = 4000mg.
Low GI, gluten-free and organic
The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) says eating Low GI foods may help reduce insulin levels and keep hunger at bay for longer periods.
It's impossible to tell the GI from the nutrition label but if you look for the Glycemic Index Foundation Logo (below) it's been tested and proven to have a Low GI (55 or less).
Health star ratings
The Australian Government Health Star Rating is an online calculator that food manufacturers can use to give their food a star rating out of 5.
The stars are based on a risk factor associated with chronic disease and take into account the calories, fat, sodium and total sugar content.
It provides a simple (and simplistic) way to assess the 'health rating' of a food but doesn't take into account your personal nutritional needs.
If you really want to be as healthy as possible, make an appointment with a certified nutritionist or dietitian who will advise you on your personal nutritional needs and help you make sense of food labels.
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