Ask the Experts: Kate Spina on nutrition labels

Ask the Experts: Kate Spina on nutrition labels

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
/ By:
Kate Spina

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What nutritional information should I pay attention to when reading a nutrition label?

As consumers, we are bombarded with food advertising and a huge amount of choice at the checkout. Add the latest social media “superfood” trends or the newest diet your colleague told you about and our nutritional choices can be fraught with confusion. Luckily, knowing what information to look for on a nutrition label can make healthier eating easier. A nutritional panel will tell you how many calories are in a food item but can also give you a much bigger picture of how a certain food impacts your health.

Firstly, have a look at the ingredient list and remember that ingredients are listed from the greatest to the smallest amount. Do fats, sugars and salt feature at the top end of this list? Are they hiding under different names? Sucrose, glucose, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar and corn syrup are all types of sugar and fats may be listed as shortening, copha, cocoa butter, palm oil or lard. We generally want smaller amounts of these ingredients in our diet so ideally they should be seen down the lower end of the list, if at all.

Check the serving size. Does it reflect the portion you are actually eating?  A package may contain a single portion or several. If you are reading nutritional information for a ⅓ cup serving of granola but you are actually eating double that, you need to multiply the nutritional information by two.

How much sugar does it have per serving? Be aware of added sugars and look for a sugar content less than 10g per 100g. Foods high in added sugar are easy to consume and can contribute to increased body fat and insulin resistance. Some foods, like fruit and milk, naturally contain sugar but also offer other valuable nutrients.

Check for saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke so choose products with less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g. Trans fats, sometimes listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, are banned in some countries due to their adverse effect on health. Completely avoid products containing these harmful fats.

Look for dietary fibre as it is necessary for good digestive health, helps you feel fuller for longer, reduces unhealthy cholesterol and improves blood sugar levels. Choosing products with 3g or more of fibre per 100g could also reduce your intake of highly-processed foods which tend to be lacking in fibre.

What’s the sodium per serving? Most added salt comes from packaged foods, not from our own seasoning so pay attention to the sodium content. Foods containing less than 140mg per 100g are considered low sodium but this is where it is useful to consider the sodium per serving. Most guidelines recommend limiting daily sodium intake to less than 2000mg so look for labelling indicating less than 500mg of sodium per meal or less than 250mg per snack.


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Kate Spina brings almost two decades of experience working with food as a chef, hospitality consultant and nutritionist. She has a passion for good food and its powerful role in preventive health.