Diet Nutrition

Want to be healthier? Learn to read nutrition labels

If you want to reduce your sugar or fat intake, learn to read nutrition labels properly and make educated food purchases.

By Gina Urlich

Are you lingering in the supermarket aisle reading nutrition facts (or fiction!) on the packaging of your food?

Consumers are more health conscious than ever before, but sorting the facts from clever marketing can be tricky.

Nutritional information printed on our food is designed to help us make more informed decisions about what we are eating, but just because a product has the word "natural" or "organic" plastered on it, that doesn't mean it's earned its health halo or five star rating.

And those big red ticks of healthiness don't always equal healthy - we only have to look at a box of processed, to know that.

Go straight to the back of the packet and bypass the misleading information on the front - you have to look at the actual ingredients in the product.

The ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from highest to lowest. If the first ingredients include refined grains, sugar or hydrogenated oils, put it back on the shelf, this product does not support your health.

Instead look for wholefood ingredients that you recognise. We also want to eat foods with minimal ingredients, minimal human intervention, less numbers and more whole foods.

There is a handy little table called the Nutritional Information Panel 'NIP', this includes how much energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre and sodium is in a product.

It will indicate both per serve and per 100g. Be mindful of how many serves are in a packet, just because you could easily eat it in one sitting doesn't necessarily mean it is one serve.

Stop to consider how much you actually eat of that food in one serving and how your portions compare to the recommended serving size.

Tip: When comparing similar products always use the per 100g column so you are comparing apples for apples.

When looking at the NIP go straight to sugar, you want to choose products that have less than 10g per 100g or 7.5g per 100ml. Lock that in the memory bank because those numbers will have a huge influence on the foods you choose.

Sodium or salt is another ingredient that can have an impact on your health. Whilst some sodium is essential for balancing fluids and electrolytes, we know too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease.

The daily recommended intake of sodium is 2300mg, which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt. Refer to the NPI and aim for foods with less than 300mg of sodium per 100g.

REMEMBER:

Sugar less than 10g per 100g

Salt less than 300mg per100g

'But what about fat?', you say. Not all fat is created equally, some fats like olive oil can be very beneficial to our health and other fats can be detrimental.

Aim for the lowest trans fats in a product, trans fats are listed as hydrogenated oils in the ingredients and are used to make things like margarine.

Research has linked these fatty acids with coronary heart disease and are best avoided.

The food marketing industry is huge, and there are people out there that are able to sell 'healthy' muesli bars that contain more sugar than a chocolate to well-meaning parents trying to tackle the battle of the lunch box.

Take a stroll through the supermarket and you'd think we were immortal; in aisle two there's juice to turn back the clock on ageing, aisle four contains cereal that gives you a six-pack and over in the refrigerated section are yoghurts that fill the colon with beneficial bacteria. Yet there is a significant rise in obesity and our younger generation developing non-communicable diseases such as such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.

Tips for making healthier purchases

Gina Urlich is a Clinical Nutritionist (BHSc Nutritional Medicine & EEN) based in Havelock North, you can contact her on 022 583 0270.