HAVE you ever taken the time to look at the ingredients or nutrition labels on your packaged foods? I know it may seem tedious and can be downright confusing, so many don’t do it.
Truth be told, advertising for food is very under-regulated, especially when generic terms such as “healthy”, “wholesome”, “nourishing” and “energising” — just to name a few — are used to describe food.
These terms are so broad in context that it is so easy to perceive them with your own idea in mind. And this is where we overlook what really matters.
So to make decoding food labels easier, here is what you should take note of the next time you reach out for your favourite packaged food:
WHAT IS THE NUTRITION INFORMATION PANEL?
The Nutrition Information Panel lists the amount of calories and other key nutrients in the packaged food. By knowing what numbers to look out for, you’ll be able to put into perspective what nutrients you will be getting.
The numbers in the “per serving” column is the amount of the nutrients in the specified number of the serving (for example, two slices of bread or four pieces of crackers).
This column gives you an indication of how much a serving of this food will give you — from the calories to all the nutrients.
For example, if you buy a loaf of bread and eat two slices as stated in the “per serving” amount, you will get 120 calories, 3g of protein, 2g of fat, and so on.
This helps you see how much of what you eat of that product fits into your overall daily food intake. Remember to multiply the numbers accordingly if you eat a larger serving of the food.
For example, if you ended up eating four slices of bread it means you ate two servings. So, when you multiply the numbers by two, you would have ended up eating 240 calories, 6g of protein and 4g of fat.
The “per 100g” column is how much nutrients are in 100g of that specific food product. The “per 100g” column allows you to compare between different brands of a similar food item.
For example, you want to buy wholemeal bread and you can choose from Brand A, B or C. By comparing the “per 100 gram” of the three brands, you can see which one gives you more of the beneficial nutrients and you can then decide which one you want to buy.
Fat — Go for a fat content of less than 5g of total fat per 100g. When it comes to saturated fat, choose a brand with the lowest amount. A diet that is too high in saturated fat can raise your cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease.
Also, when you see the word “cholesterol free” on the packaging, take note that is does not mean it has no fat. Cholesterol is only found in foods from animals such as meat, eggs, butter and milk. Vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and vegetable oils have no cholesterol. For example, when buying cooking oil, just because it says it has no cholesterol does not mean it has no fat.
Sugar — Keep to an amount of no more than 10g of sugar per 100g. If the food item contains real fruit, you can allow for slightly higher than 20g of sugar per 100g. This is because fruit contains natural sugars.
A product that says “no added sugar” means no additional sugar has been added. But it may not necessarily mean it is totally devoid of any other sugar. For example, some products contain fruit sugars to sweeten it. Either way, the amount of sugar has to be accounted for, especially if you are on a special diet.
Sodium — Select a sodium content of no more than 300mg per 100g serving. Choose varieties that are “low salt” or “reduced salt”. Every little bit of reduction helps keep your salt intake within healthy limits.
Fibre — Look for a brand that gives you at least 3g of fibre per serving. A fibre content of above 3g per 100g is considered high fibre. Basically, you want to go for a brand that gives you more fibre as fibre has plenty of health benefits.
Vitamins and minerals content — The nutrition label will also highlight the percentage of vitamins and minerals based on the Recommended Daily Allowance for an adult. Go for foods that give you substantial vitamins and minerals to add to your overall nutrition intake.
All packaged foods will also have an ingredient list which lists all the ingredients in the food. The rule of thumb to remember is that the ingredients are always listed in a descending order based on the highest proportion of that ingredient.
For example, a list that has whole flour, sugar, butter and eggs means that the highest proportion of ingredients in the recipe is whole wheat flour, followed by the second highest which is sugar, then the third highest which is butter and lowest proportion being eggs.
You want ingredients such as added sugar, salt and fat to be at the lower end of the list. If they are the second or third ingredient, then the product is high in empty calories.
For example, a wholegrain energy bar should have wholegrains as the main ingredient right? But if the first ingredient listed is sugar, then the energy bar is more like a cookie than what it promises to be.
LOOK OUT FOR THESE OTHER INGREDIENTS THAT ARE THE SAME AS FAT, SUGAR AND SALT
•Palm oil or hydrogenated oil
•Any type of vegetable oil or animal fat
•Copha (solidified coconut oil)
•Butter or margarine
•Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
*Indra Balaratnam is a consultant dietitian who believes in simple, practical ways to eating well and living healthy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org