Making sense of food labels
Taking the time to read and understand the ingredient and nutrition labels on food products is a good start to making healthier food choices. But with many different components and claims on the packaging, where do you start?
Read on as we break down each component of a food packaging label.
1.) Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
The nutrition information panel tells you about the nutritive value on each product, as analysed in a lab. It contains the amounts for energy in kilocalories (kcal) or kilojoules (kJ), protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, dietary fibre, and sugar in grams (g), and cholesterol and sodium in milligrams (mg). Manufacturers can also include other values like vitamins and minerals if, they have any nutrition claims (more on this later!).
The values stated are often per serving size and per 100g of food product. Serving sizes are defined by manufacturers themselves and will vary from product to product. For example, a Brand A might have a 30g serving size for a cookie, whilst Brand B might have a 50g serving size for their cookie. So, when making nutritional comparisons between different brands, it’s best to use the per 100g values to make your decision.
2.) Ingredients List
The ingredient’s list tells you exactly what goes in a food product. Ingredients used are listed in descending order which means the first ingredient listed is present in the highest amount.
Now here’s where it can get tricky. Sometimes the ingredients listed might not be in their common names. This becomes a big challenge for the consumer when it comes to something as simple as sugar. For example, sugar itself has many names and can sometimes be listed as glucose, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin etc.
You may wonder WHY this is so - the reason is simple.
Food manufacturers know that reading sugar as the primary ingredient on the label will not drive sales. They want sugar to be as far down the list as possible so they use multiple types of sugar. Now that each type of sugar is used in individually smaller quantities, it appears further down the ingredient list, giving you the impression that sugar is no longer the dominant ingredient.
Below is a cheat-sheet to help you know all the different names used for sugar that hide in plain sight on your food label!
Allergens are also listed in bold or in a separate sentence. If you have an allergy or an intolerance to a particular ingredient, this is important to see if the product is suitable for your dietary needs.
3.) Nutrition Claims
Manufacturers used nutrition claims to highlight specialty or key properties of the food product. These can be lines such as “High in vitamin C”, “Lower in fat”, or “No added sugar” amongst many other claims.
But, How reliable are these claims?
Well, certain standards have to be met under the Singapore Food Agency labeling guidelines so you can be assured of this. Manufacturers can only put a nutrition claim if it can be backed up by a nutrition analysis done in a lab.
But does this guarantee it is an overall healthy product?
Not really. Some claims can be misinterpreted. For example, “No added sugar” does not mean to product does not contain any sugar at all. It just means that there are no extrinsic sugars added to the product but there can still be intrinsic - or naturally occurring sugars present. “Lower in fat” does not necessarily mean the product is low in fat. This claim means that the product is at least 25% lower in fat than a reference product chosen by the manufacturer.
It's inevitable that manufacturers adorn food products with nutrition claims in large, bold prints as a marketing tactic to attract you to their products. While it may seem like their product is nutritionally superior to other products, sometimes the not-so-good details are cleverly concealed in fine print or uncommon terms.
This is why it’s essential to not only look at the front of the food packaging but also the ingredient’s list and NIP before you make your decision.
Making Healthier Choices
If you’ve never thought to thoroughly read food product labels before, this might be a lot so take your time to get familiar! You could start by going through the products you already have at home and take note of what can be improved in terms of you, or your family’s nutrition needs.