Nutrition Labels

It's very easy to get bogged down in details when talking nutrition labels.  There's so much to consider and weigh up!  So let's try and keep it at a higher, simpler level and cover off the basics.  I'll also give you some links in case you're feeling brave and want to dig deeper :)

Food nutrition labels vary depending on the product, but generally include:

  • Servings per pack and individual serving size
  • Energy
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrate
  • Sugars
  • Sodium

Cereal packets will often contain an additional table of added vitamins and minerals.

As I mentioned, it's very easy to get bogged down in details ... frankly, it's enough to make your head bleed!  Even comparing nutrition labels at the supermarket can be really confusing.  There's so much to consider:

  • Energy needs for all the members of your family
  • Recommended daily intakes (RDI) for all the nutrients 
  • Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates,
  • Natural vs Refined Sugars
  • Good Fat, Bad fat
  • Sodium/salt

1.  Serving Information

First up, be aware that serving sizes do vary and therefore you may not be comparing like sizes if you are looking at the serving size.  For comparisons, the per 100g is usually a better way to inform your choices.

As an example ...

2.  Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) and Energy

Percentage Dietary Intake (%DI) is based on the recommended amounts of energy and nutrients needed in an average adult diet to meet their nutritional needs.  The following figures are calculated based on the widely used benchmark figure of 8700 kilojoules (kj) 2079 calories as the average intake requirement for adults in Australia.  8700 kilojoules is also the figure used as the basis of food labels which is good to know.  You can use the %DI to compare similar products and choose more nutritious foods.

Here's the guide from the Dietitians Association of Australia to give you a hand.  

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also have a good fact sheet on Healthy Diet guidelines.

Please keep in mind 8700 kilojoules (2079 calories) is an 'average'.  You may need more or less depending on age, height, weight, sex, if you are pregnant or breast feeding, and how active you are.  

3.  Protein 

Protein is essential to good health.  Wikipedia describe protein as the building blocks of body tissue, which can also serve as a fuel source.    Basically, you need it to put meat on your bones and to make hair, blood, connective tissue, antibodies, enzymes and the list goes on. 

For most people a daily dose of around  0.8 - 1gram of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight  (or 0.003 - 0.03 ounces of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight) is recommended.  Consuming more than twice the recommended daily intake over the long term can lead to health issues.

The guide above states 50g Protein which would correlate to a person whose healthy weight is around 50kg or 110 pounds.  

Protein needs do increase during times of cell growth and repair, such as: 

  • during childhood and adolescence
  • pregnancy and breast feeding
  • After illness or surgery.

In a typical western diet, proteins are low at breakfast and lunch and carbohydrates are high.  Protein is needed to kick start the brain so aim to spread your protein intake throughout the day rather than loading up at dinner.

Protein doesn't have to come from animals.  Here are a few good protein sources .. some are surprising!

Vegetarian Proteins

  • Legumes - chickpeas, quinoa, lentils, split peas, aduki beans, kidney beans
  • Soy products (tofu)
  • Vegetables  (asparagus, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini and beetroot to a lesser extent)  These vegetables actually have more protein that nuts!  ... an interesting fact I picked up while researching this article :)
  • Raw nuts and seeds.  Although nuts do have have protein, they are mostly made up of good fats. 

Animal Proteins

  • Lean Red Meat (beef, lamb, veal, pork, goat and kangaroo)
  • Lean Chicken and Turkey
  • Fish (Cod, Tuna, Salmon)
  • Eggs
  • Diary (milk, yoghourt and cheese) are packed with protein and also contain calcium for our bones.
  • Fish and Seafood

Please consider the whole package - not just the protein, but the fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are all part of the food you're eating.  Aim for sources low in saturated fats, sugars and processed carbohydrates and rich in nutrients.

4.  Fat

Fats have been demonised in our diets for decades now, but not all fats are 'bad'.  Unfortunately lots of low fat products compensate by being high in other ways (eg. sugar or sugar substitutes).  My own preference is full fat everything, however I am careful about how much I consume, and substitute them for good fats where I can.

While the table above suggests a daily intake of 70g fat (good fats please!) another measure is less than 30% of your total kilojoule (calorie) intake.   Once again this depends on your age, height, weight, stage of life etc.  

Handy to know that children need more fat for their body weight than adults do.

Lets try and break this down and keep it simple....I know I struggle to remember who are the good guys and who are the bad guys when it comes to fats.  So here we go...

  • Unsaturated fats are healthy fats.  
  • Saturated fats are unhealthy 'bad' fats.  
  • Trans fats are also unhealthy 'bad' fats.   

Unsaturated Fats (the good guys)

Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats and are an important part of a healthy diet.  These fats help reduce the risk of heart decease and lower cholesterol levels when they replace saturated (bad) fats.

There are 2 types of healthy fats - Polyunsaturated fats and Monounsaturated fats.  

Polyunsaturated fats are the Omega-3 and Omega 6 fats found in:

  • Walnuts and brazil nuts
  • Canola Oil, safflower and soybean oils
  • Soy milk and tofu
  • flaxseed
  • fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, anchovies, oysters)
  • Brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, parsley  (seriously, who knew these greens contained healthy fats!)

Monounsaturated fats are found in:

  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
  • Sunflower, Olive and canola oil.

Saturated and Trans Fats (the bad guys) 

Saturated and Trans Fats are the bad guys.  These are the guys that give fats a bad name and are liked with increased risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood cholesterol levels.

Saturated fats are found in:

  • Dairy foods (butter, cream, ghee, regular fat milk and cheese)
  • Meat (fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb, processed meats (eg. salami, sausages) and the skin on chicken).
  • Palm Oil
  • Cooking margarine and copha
  • Coconut oil, milk and cream

Trans Fats are unsaturated fats that have undergone a chemical change and as a result now behave like saturated fats - they've gone to the dark side! 

Saturated and trans fats are also found in processed and commercially baked goods.  For example:

  • Cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, breads
  • Packaged snack foods (microwave popcorn, chips, candy)
  • Solid fats (stick margarine)
  • Fried Foods (french fries, chicken nuggets, hard taco shells)
  • Pre-mixed products (cake mix, pancake, chocolate milk)
  • Anything with 'partially hydrogenated' oil listed in the ingredients.

Here's a link if you want a bit more detail on Fats from the Dietitians Association of Australia.

5.  Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body and an essential part of a healthy diet.  Basically carbohydrates break down into simple sugars during digestion.  They are absorbed into the bloodstream where they are known as blood sugar (blood glucose).  Glucose is then used to fuel your body with excess glucose stored for later use or converted to fat.  

Recommended daily intake is 310 grams of Carbohydrates a day.  As always this is only a guide. 

Of course there are 2 types of carbohydrates:

  • Complex carbohydrates (the good guys) and
  • Simple carbohydrates (the bad guys or sugars).

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates consist of a longer series of sugars that take the body more time to break down.  They generally release the sugars in lower amounts at a consistent rate, therefore having a lower glycemic load (lower GI) to keep you going through the day. 

They are often rich in fibre and therefore more satisfying.   Commonly found in whole plant foods they are often high in vitamins and minerals.

Good sources of complex carbohydrates are:

  • Fibre rich fruit and vegetables.  Aim for fresh without added sugar.  Dried fruits don't qualify as they have concentrated sources of natural sugar and have more kj/cals.  Whole fruits and vegetables also contain dietary fibre.  Starchy vegetables generally contain more carbs - potatoes, sweet potato/yams, parsnips, beans, peas, corn.
  • Whole grains over refined grains (buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, whole wheat flour, brown rice)   
  • Beans and legumes (split peas, lentils, aduki beans and kidney beans)

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates consist of basic sugars without much nutritional value. The sugars are released all at once into your system, therefore having a high glycemic load and will result in unstable sugar levels moving through peaks and the troughs.

So you know who the culprits are, here are some examples of simple carbohydrates:

  • Soft Drinks (soda),
  • Lollies (candy)
  • Sugar, honey, syrups
  • Jams and jellies
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • White rice, white bread, white pasta
  • Pastries and desserts
  • Chips, cakes, pies, biscuits (cookies)

hmm ... simple carbohydrates / sugars .... same thing really?

6.  Sugars

Our dietary intake guidelines show us we should stick to around 90g sugar per day (about 18 teaspoons).  

Before you run straight to the cupboard for your favourite sugary treat, the World Health Organisation also recommended a reduction in free sugar intake from 10% of your daily intake to 5% in 2015.  For an adult of a normal body mass index (BMI) that works out to about 6 teaspoons (or approximately 25 grams) of free sugar per day. 

What is 'free sugar'?

According to WHO and Wikipedia Free sugars refers to monosaccharides (simple sugars like glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (complex sugars such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose, maltose) added to foods and drinks as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. 

Hmm monosaccharides and disaccharides that's too complicated! ... In a nut shell we're referring to sugars added to foods and drinks as well as natural sugars in honey, syrups fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.  Sometimes referred to as refined sugars.  As we're learning from reading our nutrition labels, a lot of the sugars consumed today are 'hidden' in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets.

For example a can of soda may contain up to 10 teaspoons or 40 grams of sugar.  A tablespoon of ketchup has 1 teaspoon of sugar.  Be sure to check the sugar content of your favourite breakfast cereal.

It's important to note that free sugars do not include the sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables and sugars naturally present in milk.

Naturally occurring sugars are definitely preferable to free sugars, but we still need to know how much sugar we're eating. I did some research and put together the small list of foods below with the highest sugar, high sugar fruits and vegetables and low sugar fruits.  Makes for some interesting reading :)  Of course we also need to take into account the sugars present in other foods we eat, for example ... carbohydrates.

I did an interesting comparison last week... 2 natural confectionery company jellie snakes contains about the same amount of sugar as 4 dried figs.  Dried fruit is high in sugar (as you can see above) and while I think it's a better alternative both in taste and other nutrients, the fundamental truth still remains ... they both contain a significant amount of sugar!

7.  And last, but certainly not least ... Sodium/Salt

Our table suggests a daily sodium intake of less than 2.3g per day, however a WHO article in June 2016 recommends less than 5g per day and shows that on average most people consume too much (on average 9-12g per day).  Ouch!   We know that high sodium consumption and  insufficient potassium intake contributes to high blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.  That's a lot of dis-ease!

Here's some foods that are high in sodium ... although some of the numbers don't look very large, remember they are per 100g!  The devil's always in the detail :)

Happy Healthy Eating!