How to read a label

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How many times have you heard a nutrition expert caution shoppers to read the label on a product before purchase? It’s a standard refrain and yet many consumers have little idea what they’re looking for when they turn over that tub of yoghurt or box of cereal. Learning how to negotiate a nutrition panel can help anyone aiming to eat healthier avoid saturated fat, and added salt, sugar and kilojoules.

First of all, look at how many servings are in the packet. It might seem as though you could scoff the whole lot in one sitting, when it’s really intended for two or more servings.

Ingredients on the panel are listed in order of volume (largest to smallest), so you can easily tell if the product is packed with fats, sugars and salts. All three hide under many different names, and if you discover any of these names in the first three ingredients, put it back on the shelf.

Different types of fats can be listed as: animal fat or oil; beef fat; butter; chocolate; milk solids; coconut and coconut oil, milk or cream; copha; cream and sour cream; ghee; dripping; lard; suet; palm oil; and vegetable shortening.

Sugar also masquerades as: dextrose; fructose; sucrose; maltose; maple syrup; golden syrup; honey; and malt.

There is a whole range of additives that contain high amounts of sodium: anything with the word salt or sodium in the title; meat or yeast extract; baking powder; monosodium glutamate (MSG); and stock cubes.

If that also sounds complicated, just go to the Health Star Rating panel that now appears on the front of grocery items. On it is a simple breakdown listing kilojoules and grams of saturated fat, sugars and sodium per serve. Just keep them all low.

Here are some more specific tips on what to look for, particularly if you’re trying to lose weight:

• Check the total fats. Generally, you should opt for products that have less than 10g of fat per 100g. Saturated fats should be less than 3g.

• Sugar comes naturally from many different sources, so what you’re trying to avoid is added sugar. Keep it under 15g per 100g, but also make sure it doesn’t appear in one of its forms as the first three ingredients on the ingredients list.

• For maximum health benefits, choose foods that have less than 120mg of sodium per 100g; you should never choose anything where the levels are greater than 400mg per 100g.

• The last element to look at on a label is the number of kilojoules. When you’re comparing two products always look at the per 100g column (rather than the per serve, since serving sizes aren’t always the same). If you’re looking at a product on its own, anything with more 600kJ per serve is considered a ‘discretionary’ food, or what some people refer to as ‘junk food’.

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