Nutrition Label Basics
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
I see way too many people breaking out in a mid supermarket aisle wrestle with packaged goods with an attempt to work out what the packets deal is. By the end, the health striving participant gives up and just buys the product on special. Sound familiar? Read on for some hot tips & moves to win the wrestle.
Those confusing tables on the back of packaged food items that most people have no bloody idea what they mean.
All foods have to list seven food components on their nutritional information panels – energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. Manufacturers might decide to include other nutrients, such as fibre and calcium, too.
Don't count calories..
Firstly, those people who count kilojoules/calories daily are setting themselves up for failure. Their ‘calories in, calories out’ preachers are usually those who studied nutrition through the latest article in Men's Health to guide their 6-week summer shred diet.
Logging meals and counting calories are a good way to learn the composition of different foods and the correct portion for you, but there is a high degree of risk of nutrient deficiencies and obsessiveness over numbers and weighing food which leads to an unhealthy relationship with food.
For maintainable weight loss, strength and muscle increase, health, longevity, medical nutrition or whatever your goals are, the focus needs to be an individualised approach to build a healthy relationship with food, adequate macronutrients and micronutrients to make up your daily intake inline with your goals; the timing of these macros and micros; the coupling of these macros; the ratios in each meal and snack, and ease and variety when it comes to meal preparation. This is where a dietitian comes in handy.
Nutrition is complex, and so is the human body. Due to each person's lifestyle, exercise routine, stress levels, sleep, metabolism, and body composition, everyone has individual requirements that are likely to change throughout our life.
Learning how to read nutrition labels is a handy skill to have, it helps you learn what makes up the meal and to compare different products so you can choose the healthier one for you.
To learn about nutrition panels, we have to go back to basics. You firstly need to understand what you are looking for, where to look, what the numbers mean, and what macronutrient it should naturally be rich in.
Let’s step it out...
Calories (kcal), Kilojoules (kJ) and Energy:
It is the sum of the protein, carbohydrates and fats present in the food.
These three are interchangeable, Americans use calories, Aussies use kJ. This is a unit of measurement which is based on the amount of heat produced when food is burned in a metal oven called a calorimeter.
1 calorie = 4.18kilojouls
Proteins are a chain of amino acids that break down to help build, maintain, and repair your muscles, skin, connective tissue and organs. Amino Acids are the building blocks of proteins, all with their important role in our body.
Eating enough ‘complete protein’ is important, complete proteins are ones that provide all the amino acids we need in adequate amounts. Inadequate protein intake can cause muscle breakdown and a decline in health, but on the other hand, excessive protein can cause weight gain.
Most evidence suggests that a meal with over 30g of protein is burning holes in your gym pant pockets and increasing your waistline. When eating out, aim for a serve of protein that is approximately the size of the palm of your hand.
Foods rich in protein include;
- Animal products such as poultry, fish, red meat, eggs and dairy products.
- Plant-based sources such as tofu, sprouted lentils, and tempeh.
- Nuts and seeds.
Protein has 17kJ per 1g of protein, therefore 30g of protein = 510kJ.
When buying products high in protein, choose the best source available for your budget, find products labelled grass-fed, wild-caught, free-range, or organic.
Do you know the difference between Carbohydrates and Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate, carbohydrates are sugars and fibre (usually a few extra nutrients too).
Fibre slows the absorption of sugars, sugar takes a monorail straight to your bloodstream leading to a blood glucose spike, whereas ‘carbohydrates’ have the indigestible ball and chain (fibre) to drip feed your bloodstream glucose.
Foods rich in Carbohydrates include:
- Grains: wheat, barley, rye, corn, oats, quinoa and rice.
- Root vegetables such as the family of potatoes
- Legumes & beans
- Dairy products
Of course, the whole confectionary aisle
Like protein, carbohydrates also have 17kJ of ‘energy’ per 1g of carbohydrates, therefore 20g of carbohydrates = 340kJ
For general health, when choosing foods naturally high in carbohydrates, choose the product with the lowest amount of sugar, the least processed (looks like its natural self, eg a potato looks like a potato but white bread looks nothing like the wheat plant) and one with the highest amount of fibre.
A little hot tip for your waistline and blood glucose: 4g of sugar on a label = 1 tsp of sugar, start calculating this on the products you buy and aim for <10g per 100g column.
The right ratio of fats is so important for cognitive health, hormone production, satiety and keeping within a healthy weight range. Saturated fat, omega’s, trans saturated fat, poly/mono and cholesterol are in the fat family.
Fat doesn't make you fat and cholesterol isn't going to kill you. Unhealthy fats such as those in processed and deep-fried foods will push you along that path.
Foods rich in fats:
- Oil, butter, ghee
- Animal fat, oily fish and eggs
- Nuts, seeds & avocado
- Full-fat dairy products
- Dark chocolate
Fats are much more energy-dense than protein and carbohydrates, 1g of fats = 37kJ.
When choosing products high in fats, just avoid processed fats, or those coming from poor quality sources of meat.
Overall, try to stay away from packaged foods where possible. If you don't know an ingredient listed on the packet, google it to find out more. Stick to the outskirts of the supermarket where the food is fresh or shop dry ingredients at a whole food store such as The Source Bulk Foods where every item doesn't equal extra plastic and the ingredients are high quality. When venturing into the isles, calculate sugar and read the ingredient list so you are aware of what you're putting in your body.