Back to basics: Reading nutrition labels

Hey there! 

After a few months off the blog I’m back and ready to inspire and educate! I’ve been busy finishing off my 2nd to last semester of my Nutrition degree (Only 2 units to go before I’m a real NUTRITIONIST) and starting a new job, as well as joining a gym. Needless to say it’s been a hectic few months. However, I’m back into it, and the next few weeks are dedicated to getting back to our nutrition basics. 

Something that has become very apparent to me after reading and following a vast number of nutrition blogs and websites, is that there is so much information out there; how on earth are we supposed to know what’s right? My suggestion-go with someone who is qualified. There are a number of celebrities who are having their say about nutrition and its a little frustrating for the rest of us who actually know what we are talking about. I’m not saying they don’t have any good ideas, I’m just saying that if they are making money off their information without any real qualification, then it probably not a great idea to follow it to the tee. However in saying that, they do have a large amount of really great ideas and recipes.

Ok, moving on from the mini rant. Today I’m planning on doing a quick “Back to basics” Nutrition lesson on how to read labels. Its a great skill to have to be able to pick up a packet and figure out if it should be in or out your shopping trolley or not. My rule of thumb is to fill up most of my shopping trolley with stuff that doesn’t need labels. Nutrition labels can be confusing if you don’t know how to read them, they do actually provide a heap of great information. I tend not to get too stuck on the total kilojoules (although if I’m comparing two items ill pick the one with less kilojoules, as well as everything below). 

Serve sizes vs 100g:

When reading nutrition labels, ALWAYS read the 100g column, that way you are able to compare items. The serve size is an arbitrary number that the manufacturer puts on based on what they think the serve size should be. Often, this serve size is way too much (We will talk about serve sizes in a later lesson). 

Fat:

There is so much hype around fat at the moment, and in the past the “low fat diet” has been very popular. To be honest, unless you require a specific low fat diet (e.g. Individuals with gallstones) then fat is fine. Actually, some fats are vital as our bodies can’t produce them (Think Omega 3 and 6). We just need to be wary that we aren’t replacing nutrient dense foods with fats, fats are still energy dense and eating too much will contribute to adding weight to your body.

When reading labels try to avoid items with more than 10 grams of fat per 100g. Saturated fat is a bit of a sticky one right now, new research is saying that its not as bad as we thought it was, however, as I said above, all fat is energy dense, therefore pick fats that are nutrient dense as well-think olive oil, salmon, avocados, nuts, and greek yoghurt, rather than fats in packaged products such as chips, muesli bars etc. The other debate is around fats such as coconut oil and butter, which honestly, are fine in small amounts (as with any fats). Whatever the advice around it just remember-if you are eating “raw chocolate” which is mostly coconut oil, you have to treat it as if it was real chocolate-its a treat, and not the same as nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. 

Fibre:

Fibre is the forgotten warrior of the digestive system. We tend to forget that we NEED fibre for our guts to work properly. Fibre is found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. In packaged products, most of the fibre will have been removed, so try to only buy products with more than 3 grams of fibre per 100g. Fibre keeps everything moving, and is eaten by our gut flora, both of which keep us healthy. Our guts are an ecosystem of living organisms (weird huh!) and fibre (among other things) keeps everything down there happy. 

“Fibre is the forgotten warrior of the digestive system, we tend to forget that we NEED fibre for our guts to work properly

Sugars:

Overall, I tend to avoid sugar, its really just carbohydrates with very limited nutrients. There is a vast amount of research out there with regard to the negative impact sugar has on our bodies (Especially in large amounts). However the sugar found in fruits is not the same as sugar found in packaged food such as sweets, biscuits, ice cream and cereals. I honestly don’t think we need to “quit sugar” but reducing the amount we have in packaged foods is a great idea. That way most of the sugar we are consuming comes from natural sources such as fruit. Please also remember that sugar in this way is talking about refined sugar (as opposed to all carbohydrates), we actually need “sugar” to survive-glucose is our bodies basic energy source. So when certain individuals talk about “quitting sugar” they really mean “quitting refined and added sugar”. 
When reading labels, make sure there is less than 15 grams per 100g, and read the ingredients list. If sugar is high up on the list, ditch it! Remember sugar can be in disguise – it might be called dextrose, fructose, golden syrup, honey, sucrose, malt, glucose, lactose, raw sugar, and maple syrup. 

Sodium:

Sodium is super sneaky! Its in everything, make sure when you are buying packaged products, look for products with less than 400mg per 100g, and even better less than 150mg per 100g. Sodium is already naturally in a number of fruits and vegetables, plus we add it to our meals anyway. High salt diets have been shown to lead to high blood pressure, which can influence our risk for heart attacks. High salt foods also tend to be high in fat, as well as being energy dense and nutrient poor (think fries, fast food, chips, meats, and pre-packaged sauces). Try to make as much from scratch or specifically choose low sodium options. Also remember, just because its” Himalayan sea salt” doesn’t mean its any better for you than regular salt. 

In summary:

  • Read the 100g column to be able to compare foods
  • Less than 10g of fat/100g
  • More than 3g of fibre/100g
  • Less than 15g of sugar/100g
  • Less than 150mg of sodium/100g
  • Buy more foods without packages

On a final note about reading labels, all of the above relates not only to regular supermarket food, but also to “healthy” alternatives – think health food stores, “organic, and “natural” products. While they may have some great marketing, they still have  the same basic macro nutrients, and may or may not have more micro nutrients. Just be aware that you may be paying $15 for a bar of chocolate that is exactly the same nutritionally as a regular bar. Its just packaging peeps-chocolate is still chocolate!
Try to buy food that doesn’t need a package, its always going to be more nutrient dense and healthier than anything packaged! Banana’s don’t need to tell us how great they are!
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