Decoding food labels

Four simple tips for understanding the wealth of nutritional information on packaged food products

Written by Daniel Thomson
A concerned shopper checks the nutrition labels of various boxes of cereal.

You're in the supermarket and what started out as a small whirlwind of bewilderment quickly turns into tornado of confusion as food labels begin to suck the very life out of you. Okay, perhaps it’s not that bad, but reading food labels can be tricky, don’t you think? While we all want to know what is best for us in terms of low kilojoule, lowest salt, lowest saturated fat, lowest added sugar and high fibre, sometimes a label can be Dr Jekyll with fat content and Mr Hyde with carbs or sugar.

So how can you make sure you are buying a good food product? Check out these four tips for better label reading and food shopping.

1. Often the most nutritious food doesn’t have a label.

When you think of fruit, vegetables, unsalted raw nuts, lean meat or poultry, fish, and to some extent dairy, labels are few and far between. If fruit and vegetables had labelling, most would say 'high fibre', 'no added sugar', 'no added salt', 'low (saturated) fat', 'rich in polyphenols' but unfortunately this is missed. If only more time and effort was to go into marketing these wonder foods! Alas, they don't tend to grab our attention as much as they should.

2. Look at the first 3-4 ingredients on the ingredient list.

Ingredients are listed from most abundant to least abundant. If you find another word for saturated fat (e.g. butter, full cream milk/ solids, cream, palm oil, vegetable oil, the list goes on) in the first 3-4 ingredients then it is likely not the best for you. Yes I know, saturated fats are all 'natural' right? Well, funnel web spider venom is natural too, but not the best for us in large doses.

3. If it takes you longer than 15 seconds to read the ingredient list, leave it on the shelf.

This one could have easily been called 'if any ingredient contains the letter Z, calmly step away'. Many foods these days are chocked full of additives and enhancers and all types of things. Try to choose products with the fewest ingredients – more words indicating wholegrains and nuts and fruit, and fewer words indicating sugar and added fats. We are always in the midst of periods of change with our food supply, and a trend towards a less refined/ processed food system is hopefully not too far away.

4. Divide up your trolley into sections for each food group.

Looking at the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating’s 'healthy plate', we can see that most of the food that people without disease need to eat are: vegetables, wholegrains, fruit, dairy and meat/ protein alternatives, with a treat food or 'discretionary' item every now and then. As such, our eating patterns can reflect this if we divide up our shopping trolley into sections. For example:

  • Vegetables and fruit take up between 1/3 and 1/2 of the trolley
  • Dairy and meats/ alternate protein foods take up about 1/4
  • Wholegrains take up roughly 1/4
  • Any treat foods should be able to easily fit in the baby seat – no more than this.

For more detailed information on label reading, check out the Baker IDI Label Reading resource online at

Written by Daniel Thomson

Daniel Thomson is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian at North East Nutrition Group. Follow him @barefootdietitian for his insights on nutrition and health

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