Food Labels - what do they mean?
There are no simple things to look for when you're choosing snacks for the lunch box. But, by understanding these rules food labels can actually become a source of useful information.
By law all food manufactures have to include a food information table on the product. This provides the full nutritional breakdown - for example the amount of kilojoules/calories, fat, sugar and protein etc and it also provides a full ingredient list (i.e. what actually goes into the product during manufacturing). This information, although a tad overwhelming when you don't know what you are looking at, can actually help you find out if a food is healthy or not.
Here are some simple rules for reading food labels:
- Calories and Kilojoules are both measures of the amount of energy in a product. They basically mean the same thing but are just different units of measure just like grams or milligrams. There are 4.2 kJ to 1 calorie (so if you are looking at the calorie amount times it by 4.2 to get it into kilojoules).
- Always look at the 100g or the 100ml column on the back of the product. All food items must have this column somewhere on the label and it makes it much easier to compare the nutritional values between two products. This is probably the most important of all tips!
- Choose the product with the least amount of saturated fat, sodium and sugar per 100g or 100ml, it helps to look at all three.
- Sodium and salt are the same thing! Sodium is just the technical word for salt...so don't let it confuse you.
- Ideally, look for foods that have 120mg per 100g or less of salt (sodium). Choose foods and drinks with less than 15g per 100g or less of sugar. The reality is that in our society today kids get much more than the ideal intake of both sugar and salt.
- Some food labels don't split out sugars so don't be fooled...just because it doesn't give a sugar amount doesn't mean that it doesn't contain sugar. The sugar content is sometimes expressed as part of the total carbohydrate level. A simple rule to work out the amount of sugar is to look at the carbohydrate total and subtract any fibre or probiotic values. The rest is sugar!
- 1 teaspoon of sugar = 4g. This is a nice way to visual the amount of sugar in a product.
- To be called low fat a food must contain 3g or less of fat per 100g or less than 1.5g per 100ml for a liquid.
- A warning...don't just focus on fat - pay close attention to the sugar content too as some low fat/lite foods are very high in sugar to achieve a good taste.
- To be considered fat-free, food must have 0.15g of fat or less per 100g or 100ml. Remember fat is not ALL bad, kids need a certain amount of fat in their diet for normal growth and development. The key like everything else is moderation! Try to opt for the healthy fats where you can, this will help to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diet.
- Remember to look on the label for important nutrients like fibre, calcium, protein, iron and vitamins. Sometimes it is worth having a slightly higher fat or kilojoule snack if it means it is providing your child with these other important things. A good example here is yoghurt which is packed with calcium, protein and other bone building nutrients.
- When you look at a food label look at the recommended serving size. Some products give information for a single serve but the full bottle actually equates to 2 serves. This can be misleading as you end up getting double the amount of fat, salt, sugar and kilojoules. Energy or cordial prepackaged drinks are a common culprit.
- Don't be fooled by labels with 'light' or 'lite' - it doesn't mean that they are lower in fat or kilojoules. Sometimes this can just be referring to the flavour - i.e. Olive oil.
- 'No added sugar' does not mean that a food or drink is sugar free. In New Zealand this means that there is no added sucrose (a particular type of sugar), but it may still contain other types of sugar. Sugar is sugar...our bodies can't differentiate between the different types of sugar so it is best to focus on the total amount of sugar consumed where possible.
For more information on the importance of snacks click here