Using food labels to make healthy food choices

Lady looking at food labels in a supermarket

The last decade has seen a huge rise in the number of convenience, packaged snacks and meals available for babies and toddlers in Australia. While these are conceptually a wonderful idea – allowing people with limited time or inclination to cook, to access ready-made alternatives – unfortunately, they are not all created equal. 

Recent research conducted by the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer found that 72% of packaged food sold for babies and toddlers in Australia do not meet all nutrition standards for sugar, sweetness, sodium, fat & energy set by the World Health Organisation.

And complicating this further is the multi-million-dollar marketing budgets of large food industry orgs, who spend HUGE resources developing packaging that seeks to convince you their products are a healthy choice for you and your children. Sound deceptive? It probably is. But the good news is, you can do something about it. With just a few simple tips, you can learn how to interpret the ‘fine print’ of food labels, so you can see through the marketing jargon and decide for yourself whether or not a product is a healthy choice for you and your family.

What should you look for?

Legally, any packaged food sold in Australia must contain an ingredients list, and a nutrition information panel. Together, these can help you make a decision on which products are the best and healthiest for your family. Some products may also have a Health Star Rating. When included, this can also help you to identify healthier choices so long as you know how to use it properly (read on for tips!). 

Ingredients lists

In Australia, all ingredients must be listed in order of ingoing weight, with the heaviest ingredient listed first. This means that the first ingredient most likely makes up the biggest proportion of the product, and the last the smallest proportion. So simply reading this list will give you a great idea of what the product is actually made of. (Tip: practice this in the baby food aisle of the supermarket, it's a little startling)

A rose, by any other name... (sugar)

One thing you should know - particularly when choosing meals and snacks for your children - is that sugar can sometimes appear under many different names. Why? Because the food companies love playing ‘where’s wally’ with their ingredient lists. 

Tricking. That’s not true. It’s more likely because they are trying to hide the fact that the product contains sugar. But you are becoming a food label detective! Wally doesn’t stand a chance.

You see, most sugars are just different combinations of the same three simple sugar molecules: glucose, fructose and galactose. So at the end of the day it really doesn't matter what it's called, once it is digested in your body all sugar is essentially the same. Sugar isn't the devil, but it's a great rule of thumb to try and get most of your sugar from natural sources (like fruit and dairy products) and limit added sugar.

So how can you spot Wally (sugar) in an ingredients list? Any ingredient ending in ‘-ose’, or with the words 'syrup', 'juice' or 'concentrate' are most likely sugar (think fructose, maltose, golden syrup, fruit concentrate, malt extract, etc.).

Summary: 

  • Look for short ingredients lists that include mostly whole foods (you should recognise the words!)
  • Watch out for sneaky-sugar-names, e-numbers, exceptionally long lists and/or lists that read like a chemistry exam (very rarely good news)!

Nutrition Information Panels

These often tiny, square tables of numbers might look like gibberish before you know what you’re looking for, but with a few tips (and a magnifying glass), they can give you some great insights into the product you’re choosing for your children.

By law, nutrition information panels must include the following values for any packaged food product bigger than a matchbox (excluding water, coffee, tea, herbs & spices):

  •  Energy
  •  Protein
  •  Fat (and, separately, total saturated fat)
  •  Carbohydrate (and, separately, total sugars)
  •  Sodium (a component of table salt).

Looking at these values, particularly per 100g, can help you decide if you’re making a healthy choice with clues you might not get from an ingredients’ list. For example, it can tell you if a product is high in salt, which may be hard to tell from the product name and ingredients’ alone. But how? Read on…

How to compare products

If you’ve looked at a NIP before, you will have noticed that all NIPs have a ‘per 100g/mL’ and ‘per serve’ column. If you are comparing two products, always use the ‘per 100g’ column, as this ensures you are comparing like for like (100g of one product with 100g of another product).

The serving size of products is set by the manufacturer, and can vary between brands and products. For example, one popcorn company might say a serve is 20g, and another might say it’s 80g. So, it’s not useful to compare nutrient levels per serve of one product with per serve of another.   

So what should you look for in a Nutrition Information Panel?  

For kids, we generally recommend you look for:

  • Sodium to be <120mg/100g (best), or <400mg/100g (ok)
  • Total sugars to be <15g/100g, unless the product is fruit-based in which case this can be higher

 

Example nutrition information panel

 

Health Star Rating system

The Health Star Rating (HSR) is a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. It provides a quick, easy, standard way to compare similar packaged foods. The more stars, the healthier the choice. 

Overall, it’s a useful consumer tool to identify healthier / less healthy options of packaged foods. But the ‘when used correctly’ part of that sentence is really important, as if not used correctly it can be confusing at best, and at worst - lead you in the wrong direction.

Here are the key things you need to know about using the HSR system:

It needs to be used to compare similar products. 

A products' rating is based on an algorithm. And the algorithms are different for different categories of products. This makes sense from a nutrition perspective, as it allows the algorithm to judge a product based on the nutrient levels you would naturally expect in that product, but can be confusing for consumers. How? Well, the muesli bar in your pantry was judged on different criteria than the yoghurt in your fridge. So the HSR on the muesli bar is useful to tell you how this muesli bar compares to other muesli bars, but it might not be accurate to compare it to the yoghurt. 

Use it in the supermarket, not in your kitchen

If the point above didn’t make sense.. don’t worry, this is the key point. Use it to compare products when you’re choosing them in the supermarket, but don’t use it to compare products in your kitchen at home. If you do this, you’ll be using it the right way without even trying.

There is no HSR for Fruit & Veg

Fresh produce is exempt from the HSR system. Naturally, all fresh fruit & veg would get 5 stars! Filling your trolley with 4/5 star HSR products is good, but eating lots of fresh, whole foods (unpackaged) is even better.

Health Star Rating logo
Reference:
Scully, M., Schmidtke, A., Martin, J., McAleese, A. Commercially available foods for young children (<36 months) in Australia: An assessment of how they compare to a proposed nutrient profile model. Health Promot J Austral 2023. Accessed online October 2023 here: https://doi.org/10.1002/hpja.705