Blog Series: Food and drink labelling made easy

Posted 13 April 2016

Helen Bond, State Registered Dietitian

What information can you find on food labels?

We often hear about the importance of eating a balanced diet but how can you make sure the foods and drinks you choose provide you with the right amount of calories (a measure of the amount of energy in the foods and drinks) and nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy?

Eating well is all about making informed choices about what you eat and drink and how much and how often. So, the starting point has to be about understanding what’s in the products you buy. And this is where nutritional labelling comes in.

As a dietitian, I believe that eating a healthy, balanced diet really does start when you are doing your food shopping. Food and drink labels can really help and it needn’t be confusing. So, to help you, here are five simple steps to help you make sense of on-pack information.

Step 1 – Flip it over. Almost all pre-packaged foods and drinks provides nutritional information on the back (or side) of pack. This type of label will list key nutrients that are important to health – per 100g/100ml of product and sometimes per portion and as a percentage of the Reference Intakes (the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts) – help you know just how much you’re consuming in a single serving. The order of the list will always be the same: energy (both in kcals and kJ, but most of us know as calories), fat, saturates, carbohydrates (which usually includes both starches and sugars), sugars, protein and salt. This means you can go straight to the nutrients that interest you, when you’re choosing between similar products.

Step 2 – Check out the ingredients list. This is one of the easiest places to find out what foods and drinks contain. All the ingredients that have been used to make the product will be shown in order of weight – starting with the highest-quantity ingredient first, down to the lowest-quantity ingredient last. There is no such thing as a ‘hidden’ ingredient – if it’s not listed, it’s not in the product!

Step 3 – Nutritional information at-a-glance. Many of us shop in a hurry and don’t have time to examine labels in detail. Front-of-pack food labels show you the calories (per 100g or 100ml), and the amount of calories, fat, saturates, sugars and salt in a serving or per portion and as a percentage of the Reference Intakes. These labels can also help you keep a rough tally of your calorie intake and compare food and drinks quickly.

Step 4 – Look at the traffic lights. Some front-of-pack labels use traffic light colours to highlight the nutritional information, showing you whether the food or drink contains a high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) amount of fat, saturates, sugars and salt. Remember though, that this is quite a simplistic tool and green doesn’t mean ‘go’ and red ‘stop’. Instead, it’s important to think about getting the right balance of foods in your overall diet – so choose foods and drinks that show mostly green or amber nutrients, whilst enjoy those with more red coded nutrients on occasion, or in smaller portions. If there are no traffic light labels or you can’t see the colours clearly, you can look at the per 100 gram on the back or the listed ingredients.

Step 5 – Put it into perspective of your daily diet. Front and back-of-pack nutrition labels can provide information on how a particular product contributes to a typical person’s Reference Intake (RI) (the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts). This can help you to make healthier choices by making it easier for you to put the nutritional content of what you’re eating or drinking into the context of your overall diet.

So, there you have my five top tips. I hope that I have shown you that all the information you need is on the label of almost every food and drink you buy in a pack. The important thing is that by understanding nutrition labels and comparing products you make choices you feel good about when it comes to your own and your family’s diet.

For more information, please check out my short videos which look at food labelling in more detail or keep an eye out for future blogs on this topic.

To find out more about calories, head to the Making Sense of Sugar Understanding Calories page.

*This blog was updated May 2017