Why you should know how to read food labels (and how to do it)

nutritional feijoa

I love feijoas. As in I’m addicted to them and can’t resist things that are feijoa-flavoured. I was out walking today in the heat and humidity and felt like I wasn’t going to make it back home on the lukewarm water shoved in my pram’s caddy, so we stopped at the supermarket for a cold drink with a bit more substance to it.

I grabbed the first one in the fridge that appealed. Small single serve? Check. Fruity? Check. Smoothie? Sounds healthy. FEIJOA?!! Absolutely.

Now I know how to read a food label, and even with all my nutrition knowledge as a personal trainer, when I want a cold, fruity, refreshing drink that’s not water to have as a pick-me-up there’s not much criteria other than the ingredients have to be relatively natural. But this one I grabbed today has given me second thoughts after reading the nutrition label as we walked back out into the heat of the streets.


A whole lotta sugar

I personally don’t mind a little sugar every now and then; I feel it’s a realistic attitude in modern society and there’s a lot of joy to be had in a decadent chocolate birthday cake, homemade cookies that have been freshly baked or an icecream on a hot day. However, the problem with many of the readymade processed foods available on supermarket shelves is the hidden sugar, fat or sodium content that is above and beyond anything that would be in foods or drinks we would make from scratch at home.

In this instance, this teeny 350ml bottle of feijoa juice had a whopping 42g of sugar in it. This has come from a variety of sources – the natural sugars in the feijoa fruit (I never have much of a problem with this), and added sucrose. There are 4g of sugar in one teaspoon, which means this small oh-so-delicious drink has 10 and a half teaspoons of sugar in it. For some perspective, a can of Coke has around nine teaspoons; granted all from refined sugar so it’s a little different, but still…

Label Reading 101

You don’t need to know the nitty gritty about everything on a food label, but there are key points that will help you make better choices with your packaged foods:

nutritional feijoa
SERVING SIZE vs. PER 100 MLS/GRAMS. Each of these are relevant in their own way. Many people believe you only ever need to pay attention to the ‘per 100 mls’ (or grams) column; this is useful if you are comparing one product to another. However, in this instance you would want to look at the ‘per serving’ column as its a single serve drink and you’re likely to have all of it in one go.

CALORIES or KILOJOULES. This is the amount of energy in your food or drink. There are roughly 4.2kJ in every calorie (so 420kJ = 100 calories). The amount of energy your body requires each day varies depending on your gender, age, weight, height, history, medical or health conditions, and how active you are. To maintain weight (i.e. not lose or gain) it will likely be around 1800-2,350 calories for women, and 2,400-3,000 for men. So if you’re having a packaged meal that contains 600 calories in the serving, you know it will take a decent chunk out of your daily energy allocation.

FAT. This can come from a range of different sources; there are good fats (typically plant-based) and bad fats (typically from animal origin). Good fats can have a positive effect on your heart health, while bad fats can do the opposite if not eaten in moderation. Labels don’t tend to break down what type of fat you’re having, but know that trans fats are the really bad kind and they will often be labelled separately. Be wary of health halos from good fats if you’re trying to lose weight; any type of fat contains 9 calories per gram. That’s regardless of whether it’s in coconut oil, butter, lard, deep fried chips, raw nuts or avocados.

SUGAR. A little sugar in moderation is okay, a lot of sugar – especially the refined kind is not so great. I truly feel the media and hype documentaries have blown this out of proportion in the wrong way; sugar is often not a problem if you do the vast majority of your food preparation and cooking at home (and eat almost nothing out of a packet, i.e. cook and bake from scratch). However, the problem of excess sugar intake has arisen from us eating too many packaged foods and takeaways as we are unable to keep tabs on how much has gone into them.

Sugar gets added to things as it makes food tastier. Sauces, drinks, readymade meals, marinades, baked goods, muesli bars, cereals… you get the idea. Everything. And if it’s not consumed in moderation it can throw energy levels and hormones out of whack and create a range of health problems. Use the sugar number information to compare one product with another so you can make better choices.

Sugar can occur naturally; there are natural sugars such as lactose (milk sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar) which aren’t so bad and are not a reason to be scared of eating fruits or dairy products. Most breads contain sugar, and if you buy baked goods for treats you can typically expect there to be some refined sugar just as you would expect there to be some in home baking. However, many products have unnecessarily large quantities of sugar added. Look for ingredients that end in ‘-ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose) and corn syrup. The other key thing you need to know is that 4 grams of sugar = one teaspoon.

SODIUM. A little salt is okay, a lot of salt on a regular basis can affect your cardiovascular system and encourage issues with heart health. Sodium is commonly added in takeaways and packaged goods to make them tastier. I once checked out a well-known Asian takeaway restaurant’s nutritional information for one of their most popular noodle bowls and it had almost a week’s worth of sodium in the one meal! The Ministry of Health advises that low-salt foods have less than 120mg of sodium per 100g, moderate-salt foods have 120-600mg p/100g, and high-salt foods have more than this.

INGREDIENTS. These are always listed starting with the biggest ingredient first. For example, if a list shows ‘Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt’, the product is mostly made from flour, then sugar etc. I always believe it’s best if you can recognise all the ingredients on nutrition labels as things you might stock in your pantry or fridge at home. If you see numbers like 621/E621 then it will have E-numbers, or additives which can include colourings, flavours and preservatives. Other long or complicated ingredients which sound like chemical names are also probably not ideal.

Everything in moderation

I’m an everything in moderation kinda girl so all the above wouldn’t put me off buying this drink again – but I would definitely put it into the ‘treats’ category to only buy sometimes. Product labels often show off the health benefits they have, omitting the details that are perhaps not so good; it’s up to us to interpret them for ourselves. This particular example makes it even more important to know how to read food labels, at least you know if you’re ingesting that much sugar you can moderate the rest of your sugar intake for the rest of that day… or that week.

For more information, check out the Ministry of Health’s Eating and Activity Guidelines for New Zealand Adults.

Images / NZ Real Health

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