Skip to content

How to read food nutrition labels

5 minute read
man with a black beard looking in the fridge at a food nutritional label

You’re at the supermarket reaching for the ‘healthy’ snack and before you add it to your basket, you do the right thing and take a look at the nutritional label (your personal trainer would be proud).

But, that’s the start of your undoing.

Let’s be real; the confusing combination of numbers, serving sizes and industry jargon can make it harder to read than a politician during election time.

So, we’ve put together a simple guide to help you understand some of the trickier terms – that way, you can make the best health decisions for you and your family.

Serving size

Unfortunately, the entire family-size block of Cadbury’s is not made to be eaten alone on a Friday night while watching Gogglebox. That’s where the ‘servings per package’ guide comes in handy. It gives you an idea of how much (or little) you should aim to eat in one sitting.

The problem with serving size is that every brand (or manufacturer) may have different serving sizes for similar products. For example, the rice puff cereal from one brand might have a serving size of 50g, while its competitor might list the serving size as 30g.

That’s why it can be helpful to look at the column that says ‘per 100g’, instead of ‘per serve’. The ‘per 100g’ column makes it easier to compare the nutrition of different products.

Information on how to read a food nutrition label

Energy

Let’s start at the top of the label with ‘energy’. Usually measured in kilojoules, it’s the total amount of energy you’ll consume from the food or drink. Energy is a combination of fats, protein and carbohydrates and the more energy you ingest, the more you should aim to burn off (for example, with exercise).

The average Aussie adult needs 8,700 kilojoules a day to maintain a healthy weight, but this could increase or decrease depending on your age, sex, muscle mass and activity level.

Protein

Not only is protein is an essential part of your diet – helping your body repair tissue and build bone mass – but it’s also great for helping keep you full for longer (so you won’t need to reach for the snack drawer).

However, too much protein will convert into sugar and fat and lead to weight gain and, with most Aussie males eating too much protein-rich red meat, the key is to aim for plant-based options like legumes, tofu, beans and nuts.

It’s recommended that an average 75-kilo male should aim for 63g of protein per day, but to find out how much protein you should be aiming for, check out the Australian Government’s handy nutrient calculator.

Fat

Fat gets a pretty bad rap in the media, but a diet rich in unsaturated fats (found in oily fish, avocados and some nuts) can reduce your risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. It’s the ‘less healthy’ saturated fats and trans fats that you’ve got to watch for. Think animal products (dairy, chicken, beef), coconut and palm oil and packaged food (pizza, chips, pastries and biscuits).

When checking out your nutritional label, aim to have the saturated fat content as low as possible – something that has less than 1.5g per 100g is generally a good option.

Carbohydrates

Carbs aren’t all bad – they’re your body’s main source of fuel and they’re necessary to keep your brain, muscles and organs functioning. So why do so many fad diets preach the evils of carbohydrates?

There are two types of carbohydrates. The first (good carbs) are absorbed slowly into your system, contain loads of fibre and can help you avoid spikes in your blood sugar levels. These carbs include whole grains, fruit, nuts and vegetables.

The second type of carbohydrate is known as a ‘bad carb’ and these types of foods are generally processed and refined – for example, white bread, white rice and cakes.

When looking at the carbohydrate section of your nutritional label, it’s less important to focus on the ‘total’ carbs; instead, check out the ‘sugar’ content.

Sugar

It may taste good, but overdoing your daily dose of sugar can be anything but. Sugar has been linked to a range of health conditions from weight gain and diabetes to cancer and dementia, so it’s time to take the sweet stuff seriously.

When looking at your nutrition label, aim to eat foods that have less than 10g of sugar per 100g.

Fibre

With the ability to help keep your digestive system healthy, as well as the ability to stabilise glucose and cholesterol levels, fibre is a super ingredient. Most Aussies however, don’t consume enough of the stuff, so it’s time to get familiar with fibre. The average adult should consume 25-30g of fibre every day and when you’re looking at your nutrition label, aim for 7.5g per 100g (or more)!

Sodium

Sodium is just a fancy (aka scientific) way of saying ‘salt’ and although it can make things taste delicious, you can have too much of a good thing. The Heart Foundation reveals that high salt intake can be linked to some serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, kidney stones and strokes.

If you’re looking at your nutritional label, opt for foods that have ‘no added salt’ or less than 120mg per 100g.

Looking for some healthy recipes? We’ve partnered with nutritionist and blogger Jessica Sepel to create a suite of exclusive, delicious and nourishing recipes that will please even the pickiest eaters. Check them out on The Check Up!

If you’re looking to make some healthier choices for you and your family, take a look at our article 6 sneaky lunchbox snacks disguised as ‘healthy’ and how to swap them.

See all articles

Articles you might also like

How to fuel your body in your 20s, 30s and beyond

Learn how to up your intake of healthy foods on a budget

What food should your kids be eating?

The best gift you can give your child is a healthy diet

How often should you eat red meat?

Aussies love eating red meat, but how much is too much?

When and how to stop eating at night

It can have a negative impact on your health (and waistline)

How to fuel your body in your 20s, 30s and beyond

Learn how to up your intake of healthy foods on a budget

What food should your kids be eating?

The best gift you can give your child is a healthy diet

How often should you eat red meat?

Aussies love eating red meat, but how much is too much?

When and how to stop eating at night

It can have a negative impact on your health (and waistline)