How to really read food labels in Australia

First - the typical information

Go HERE to get a wallet-sized cheat sheet, and HERE to learn the basics of a nutritional label. Then, come back and find out how to objectively read between the lines and work out what's really being sold to you.

It won't be possible here to exhaustively examine all the food types, let alone all available products because there are literally thousands available. So the next best thing is to grab a few random samples and examine them in detail.

Danger food.
Danger food.

Nutrition Information- Rice Crackers Spicy

Servings Per Package 5
Serving size 30g
150g Net
 
 
 
 
Average Qty Per Serve
Avg Qty per 100g
Energy
458 KJ
1529KJ
Protein
2g
6g
Fat, Total
0.27g
0.9g
- Saturated
0.08g
0.26g
Carbohydrates
25g
83.4g
- Sugars
1g
3g
Sodium
250mg
830mg

In the table above, the thing that stands out is the amount of Sodium. Note that they 'Sell' the product on the fact that it is 99% Fat free. But we are being tricked continuously in the market place. This is a good example. Sure - it's low fat, but look at the Sodium.

You might think 'so what'? It's low fat - only 2% fat, and of that, there is almost no saturated fat.

The problem is the packet size - 150g, and the so called average serve size at 150/5=30g. Most people would eat more than 30 grams of rice crackers - later I'll tell you how to judge what 30g feels like (you will be surprised). These crackers seem so healthy!

But there are 5 x 250 mg of salt in the whole packet. This is 1250 mg in total. There is no obvious indication that this is high salt. It's clear it's low fat, but it's high salt. Why have they done this? Because fat tastes nice to many people, and when there is no fat, there is little taste. To compensate, the manufactures, 'spice it up' with salt because salt is a cheap and effective flavour enhancer.

It's annoying that these nutrition labels tell the whole story without making the truth obvious. The big green label should say, "98% fat free, but really freaking high in salt". But then who would buy them?

Let's proceed to examine this label and others.

Salt

Salt is not good for people with high blood pressure. In many cases, it is labelled "Sodium".

"Low" salt means less than 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 g (or 100 mL for liquids). Our rice crackers have 803mg per 100g which is 6.7 times what you should aim for in any meal during the day. This is a snack, so to keep it within limits, you should only eat about 15g or in other words, 1/10th of the packet contents which is about a single handful.

I'd therefore settle for a big green sticker that said, "98% fat free, but 10 times the salt".

Now THAT is informative.

It's true that we absolutely require salt, but only a small amount. Only under extreme conditions do we need to seek out extra sources.


Fat

Low-fat: means that the food must contain less than 3g fat per 100g

Do you think it is a coincidence that it's 98% fat free and not 97% fat free? Probably not because if it was 98% fat free, they might not get the 'low fat' status.

Saturated fat

This is the bad one. Saturated fat solidifies at room temperature and raises your LDL.

Trans fat

Trans fat is a non-saturated fat that also raises your LDL. Avoid trans fat.

Monounsaturated fats

These are found in plant-based oils and help lower cholesterol levels in your blood. Eat this kind of fat.

Polyunsaturated fats

These are essential for your health. Eat this kind of fat.

  • Omega-6 type fats are found in certain vegetable oils.
  • Omega-3 type fats help regulate blood pressure, clotting, immune system, and brain and spinal cord function. To get this, eat fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables.

Unsaturated fat

These tend to be liquid at room temperature. They include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Cholesterol

‘Cholesterol free' does not mean ‘fat free'

Cholesterol is only significantly found in animal products so it's a big yawn when a food label screams out 'NO CHOLESTEROL" and the contents is a can of soft-drink. But it's saturated fat which is the main problem for health. Most cholesterol required by the body is manufactured by the liver, using saturated fat as a raw ingredient. Only some cholesterol is obtained by direct injection. It's found in egg yolk in fairly high concentrations, but strangely, some people are known to eat lot's of eggs and have no cholesterol problems. Current nutritional advice says, "Up to 6 eggs per week" is ok. There are plenty of non-animal products that are cholesterol free, yet high in saturated fat. Watch out.

The glycemic index GI. and GL.

The lower the GI, the slower the rise in blood sugar levels after consumption.


  • Low GI foods have a GI less than 55.
  • Intermediate GI foods have a GI between 55 and 70.
  • High GI foods have a GI greater than 70.

When you eat sugar, if you are not immediately in need of energy, your body converts it to fat. Surprisingly, your body also converts food to fat if you don't eat enough. This is because your metabolism falls in periods of fasting. It's a survival adaptation as a hedge against starvation periods.

To use carbohydrates, your body converts it to sugars. Therefore, foods that are too easily converted to sugars are bad for you as they cause a huge blood-sugar spike. A general rule of thumb is that highly refined foods like white flower and polished rice is high GI. But just because white rice is high GI, it does not mean that all rice is off the menu - Basmarti rice is not high GI for example.

In the western world, we simply eat too much, and worse than that, eat far too much saturated fat, sugar, and salt. High GI foods put a strain on the body's insulin production.

Glucose has a GI of 100. You might think that is the maximum, but not so, this is just a convenient measure to normalise and compare other food. Watermelon has a high GI, but since it's mostly water, you don't consume much in a serve.

This brings to notice of another measure which is glycemic loading. Multiply the GI by the number of grams of carbohydrate in 100g of food, and then divide by 100. This gives the Glycemic Load. For watermelon, the calculation is 72*5/100 = 3.6

  • Low GL is < 10
  • Medium GL 11 to 19
  • High GL is > 20

It's ok to eat a reasonable serve of watermelon. Just don't eat the whole lot in one sitting. Fruits tend mostly to contain fructose and consequently many types of fruit are low or medium GI. Again - judge the serving size to make sense of these figures. A mango is medium GI, so eat half a mango and that's ok.

Fibre

  • High fibre: More than 3g of fibre per average serve.
  • Very high fibre: At least 6g of fibre per average serve.

Eat fibre. It's good for you.

Example: Chocolate Marshmallow Crisps (Recipe)

Chocolate Marshmallow Crisps
Chocolate Marshmallow Crisps

Here are some of those figures expressed per 100g

 
Per serving
Per 100g
Total fat
4g
25
Saturated fat
2g
12.5g
Sodium
10mg
62.5mg
Sugars
7g
43.75g
I calculated these figures. They were not exposed in the marketing which is a promotional recipe by a cereal manufacturer.

In the case of these Chocolate Marshmallow Crisps there seems at first sight to be no problem.

Per serving, there is no trans fat, no cholesterol, only 2g of saturated fat, only 10mg of salt. But the problem is the serving size of only 16g.

That's an awkward serving size for calculations. To be able to compare with other products, it needs to be per 100g, and therefore, you need to multiply each serving size by 100/16=16.25

This awkwardness is why it is now mandated in Australia that easily comparable figures are also listed on the nutrition labels. In this case, I think they get away with it because it's a recipe, not a pre-packaged product.

When expressed as some number of grams per 100, then it's directly convertible to a percentage. Therefore, this recipe has no fibre but consists of 25% fat and 43.75% sugar.

With 12.5% of saturated fat, and 43.75% sugar, the real nutritional information should read, "Over 50% bad for you". But the marketing chooses to hide this little nugget of information by choosing a rather unrealistic serving size.

Why is this annoying? Because the weight of a single Australian 50c coin is 15.55g. For our American readers, this is about two presidential dollar coins at 8.1g each.

Without knowing it, you are being lied to every day, without being lied to. To get a healthy dose of this recipe then lick it once, or smell it about 10 times. That's your limit.

Capsicum

Capsicum. Check out the Vitamin C content!
Capsicum. Check out the Vitamin C content!

Capsicum

Wow. All fruit and vegetables are healthy choices. Of course, too much of anything is bad for you, and I've heard of a couple of cases of vitamin-A poisoning from consuming too much carrot juice.

These 'health' drinks that you can buy are sometimes a little over-the-top too. A glass of squeezed orange-juice might sound healthy but if you consider that 6 oranges might be used to make one glass of drink, and the fibre content is largely thrown away, then it's more like a big sugar-hit.

Meat

We all need iron because it's part of the transport for oxygen and nutrient absorption. Meat is a good source of iron. Some cereals are fortified and vegetarians find alternate sources. The good news is that we don't expel iron quickly, so a good feed two or three times a week is normally fine. Doctors will prescribe iron supplements in some cases - particularly for women at certain times.

I've noticed that a meal of steak purchased at a hotel often comes with the main ingredient being the meat, with a few token vegetables with purpose no more than artistic scaffold. The serving sizes are exactly backwards. The size of the meat portion should be 1/3 of what is supplied, and the amount of vegetables tripled. This is the world we have created for ourselves. It's wrong because it's driven by commercial consideration, not nutritional skill. I guess, it's hard to justify purchasing a meal for $45 if it is contained a seemingly tiny portion of meat and a load of cheap vegetables.

Kangaroo meat

Kangaroo meat is incredibly healthy. It's low fat and a good source of protein.
Kangaroo meat is incredibly healthy. It's low fat and a good source of protein.

The nutritional information about kangaroo meat is a great benchmark to commit to memory. Even if you are averse to eating Skippy, knowing these figures can help you choose acceptable alternatives.

In the ingredients, there is nothing extreme. Sodium is a low 40mg per 100g, Fat and sugar is only 1% and deserves a big green label "99% fat free, 99% sugar free".

It's rich in energy and the serving size at 200g is substantial. You need a way of guessing what 200g means. Well, that's five slices of heavy whole-grain bread, or probably 5 or six apples, depending on their size. It's going to make a satisfying meal. Add a good share of vegetables to that, and you will be fuelled for hours. There is no need for sugar, salt or fat. It's tasty and tender when prepared correctly (rare).

Lamb
Lamb

Lamb

Too much saturated fat.
Too much saturated fat.

Lamb is not good. Check the serving size. Compared to the kangaroo meat, it's much smaller at only 336g. On top of that, this small portion consists of over half the recommended intake of saturated fat for the whole day.

You can tell this about lamb by the way that the fat oozes out under the grill and then solidifies in the pan. If it does this at room temperature, then it indicates a high saturated fat content.

But look at the cholesterol content. For the recommended (small) serving suggestion, this exceeds the recommended daily intake by over 5 times.

It's not that you should not eat lamb but the cooking method needs to help to leach out saturated fat, and serving sizes need to be tiny - probably about 30 grams which is only the weight of a few coins so it's almost like you should treat lamb as a spice rather than a food source. Supplement the meal with healthier choices.

Now this may seem extreme, and it is a little 'over the top', but it does illustrate that a continuous poor food choice and big serving sizes is going to kill you in the end. It's probably ok to have a lamb meal once every two months or something if you have a good diet otherwise.

Somewhere between these two extremes, from kangaroo, to lamb, there are good lean choices to be made. With a bit of care, you can use these examples as benchmarks for comparison.

Organic

Organic strictly means not mineral - things like grass, a chicken, bacteria, but not a steel post or chunk of glass. Unfortunately the big marketing engine in the sky stole this meaning and uses it to make you pay more for for nutritionally identical produce. In Australia, locally produced food must be declared safe to eat which means no nasty chemicals are ingestible despite the method of farming and production.

If you pay more for organic produce, then you are simply paying for an alternative (and perhaps better) method of farming. Your motivation for doing this should be environmental, not nutrition, taste or safety because there are no advantages to be had.

If you seek out seasonal and locally produced basic foods, then you will be getting the best produce at an economical price. Purchasing out-of-season means higher prices and a greater chance of buying an imported product.

Added vitamins

Except under medical advice, don't bother. If you follow the scheme outlined here for healthy eating, then all your vitamin needs are adequately fulfilled. Unless you enjoy eating money converted to pills, only to piss them out a few hours later, then carry on. In most cases, no harm is done, but equally, there is little to no advantage and in some cases concentrated high-doses can cause harm.

One possible exception to a pill-based approach is 'fish oil' tablets. More research needs to be done, but this looks promising as a supplement. Discuss it with your doctor.

Gluten-free

Coeliac disease sufferers are the only people who need to eliminate gluten because of a biological auto-immune intolerance . It is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

Exercise

The human body is meant to MOVE. So move it. When your muscles are trained for movement, and your cardiovascular system is healthy, then the body expends sugars more efficiently. A load is taken off the insulin-based blood-sugar level control system. Therefore, you should treat exercise as a form of nutrition. It alters in a positive way, how your body uses food.

When you put on weight, not only do you gain more fat cells that don't go away (but they will shrink because of dieting), the ability to absorb fat is because of a change in the fat cells. This change makes them more likely to store fat than release it. Some people don't develop this change and therefore can eat surprisingly large portions without laying down fat. Others inherit the state and suffer a life-long struggle with weight. It's better to never become obese in the first place. The main causes are long-term continuous consumption of foods high in saturated fat, and refined sugars. Unfortunately, this describes almost all fast-food, pre-packaged meals, snacks, confectionery and convenience food.

Summary

Every fad diet is a waste of time and money and screws with your natural requirements. All you really need to do is keep fit and eat real food in moderation. Processed goods, and low nutritional high-profit snack foods unfortunately permeate our society and it's killing us. If the majority could learn to really properly read the food labels and boycott the scams then market pressures will eventually provide a better supply of balanced food items.

Sticking to basic foods will give you the best result. If the food does not require a nutritional label, then it's likely to be a core food item like a vegetable. If the food label reads like a chemistry experiment then try to find out why. If it has a big claim like 99% free of something, or 0% something, then find out what is the catch. It's likely to be a trick. One of the ones to watch out for is 0% CHOLESTEROL. This probably means "55% refined sugars". It can be the same for 'No added sugar'. In that case it could be that the food is concentrated -- perhaps from fruit that is too bruised or aged to be presentable as fresh produce and contains far too much sugar as a result. Even something like a banana (a good source of potassium) will change in GI as it ripens. Generally the greener it is, the lower the GI, so a pre-packaged 'banana-bread' or 'banana-smoothy' might not be all it's made out to be.

If you did not make it, then you don't know what's in it. Don't eat out, eat in. Teach your kids by example and make real dinners at home, and get them to help. We have two children who eat vegetables and fruit. They are slim and healthy. Many of their friends pick out the vegetables and just eat the meat when they stay for dinner, and they have a bulging fat-ring around their belly. This is not natural, and it's likely they will continue with a poor diet as they grow into adults. It's a shame. It should be easy to eat healthy products, but almost every pre-packaged and pre-processed item in the supermarket is not balanced from a nutritional standpoint. Vegetables take a lot longer to digest than meat, and they keep you full longer. Processed foods are un-balanced and very complicated to evaluate.

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Comments 3 comments

L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City

You've done a thorough job of explaining the ins and outs of much of the information on food labels. I wanted to add that trans fat is also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil/fat instead of trans fat, but it is the same thing and equally unhealthy.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you very much for that extra information L.L. Woodard


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 4 years ago from London, UK

Thanks for breaking it down. I found it extremely useful.

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