Understanding nutrition labels is important to assist you in making healthy choices come shopping time.
This series of articles equips you with the basic knowledge to decipher food labels. We also give you insights into the little tricks of the trade that food manufacturers use on their labels.
In Part 1 of this series we take a closer look at the nutritional section that lists the following:
►The typical nutritional information table.
► The Ingredient list
► The list of allergens
The serving size is clearly specified (50g of product). Often the company indicates how many standard measures are needed to achieve this amount (e.g. 5 tablespoons).
The nutritional information is listed for both the recommended serving of product and for 100 g of solid foods or each 100 ml of liquids.
The number of servings per container is often given for products sold in larger sizes which contains several servings.
Tip: It is important to be careful as sometimes the serving size is smaller than what a person would typically consume. Therefore, it is important that you calculate the nutrition information based on the amount you are actually consuming.
The Typical Nutritional Information Table
The typical nutritional information table is required by law (1) to have 3 columns:
►Column 1: Listing the energy content and the nutrients.
►Column 2: amount of energy and each nutrient per recommended serving of product.
►Column 3: amount of energy and nutrient per 100g or 100ml portion of product. This allows consumers to easily make comparisons among products by comparing equal amounts.
The NRV column: The fourth column in the example above is optional and shows the percentage of the Nutrient Reference Values (NRV) for certain nutrients like vitamins and minerals. NRV is simply the amount of nutrients recommended on a daily basis for individuals 4 years and older. Therefore, in each serving of the above product you are getting 30% of your recommended daily requirement of Vitamin A, B1, B2, Iron, Magnesium and Selenium.
The Energy (kJ) Content
The energy content of food products is given in Kilojoules although we more commonly use “Calories (Kcal)” as a unit of energy. If you want to find out the energy content in calories simply use this simple conversion factor: 1 calorie = 4.12 kJ.
The Protein Content
The protein content is given in grams. Nothing complicated here.
The Carbohydrate Content
Glycaemic carbohydrates refers to the carbohydrates that enters metabolism and supplies energy. Previously, the term “Total Carbohydrate” was used but not all carbohydrates supply energy. For instance, erythritol classifies as a carbohydrate but is not a glycaemic carbohydrate.
The amount of sugar is also listed, which is a good thing. Keep in mind that in other products the sugar may not necessarily refer to table sugar (sucrose) only but also other forms like lactose (milk sugar), dextrose (glucose) or fructose (fruit sugar).
We need not tell you to choose products with a low sugar content.
The Total fat and cholesterol Content
The fat content is required to be given in terms of total fat.
The amount of the different subgroups that constitute the total fats are also given, like saturated fat, unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats and trans fat.
Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are acceptable although they also contain a lot of calories. It is best to avoid foods with a lot of trans fats because they are harmful.
The Vitamin and mineral content
The vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) amounts listed on the labels are either from those present already in the ingredients or from added vitamins and minerals.
If the label does not list the micronutrient content it means that it does not contain a substantial amount because to be listed at least 5% of the NRV of the nutrient must be present.
The Sodium content
This is a very important thing to look at. As a rule of thumb, limit the sodium to less than 1,500mg per day from all sources.
The Ingredient List
The ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. The ingredient used in the highest amount is listed first. It is always a good idea to check the ingredients list and note the position of sugar, sugar sources and salt.
Labels need to include the sources of allergens in the product. In our example, soy is listed as an allergen as it present in one of the ingredients. Other examples of allergens are eggs, milk, nuts and crustaceans.
Additionally, manufacturers disclose whether their products have been processed in facilities that handle common allergens.
About the Author
Veeraj Goyaram, MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude, BSc (Hons) Biology.
Veeraj’s passion revolves around researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. Veeraj was previously based as a graduate student at the University of Cape Town, where he examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.