Food labels can be so very confusing and overwhelming, that we sometimes don’t even bother to read them. For me, being time-poor doesn’t help, and spending that extra time trying to work out what labels mean and how to use them can be a real hassle.
Luckily though, there are a few quick tips that can make shopping for healthy food a whole lot easier and quicker! Knowing what to look for right away can help you make the best choice about purchasing the right foods.
While food labels can carry many different types of information, the main things to look at when choosing healthy packaged food are the Ingredients List, The Nutrition Information Panel, and the Health Star Rating System.
All ingredients in a food product must be listed on the label from largest to smallest by weight. So, you want to make sure the first three to five ingredients are not saturated fat, sugar, or salt. If any of these ingredients are listed as one of first three on the list, then you want to avoid that product all together. Don’t be fooled though! Because many other words are used by food producers to try and trick you to think the ingredients list is healthy. For instance, there are many other words used for saturated fat, added salt or added sugars, and some examples are found below:
Saturated fat can also be written as: palm/coconut oil, vegetable shortening, lard, ghee, suet, coconut cream, copha, animal fat/oil, beef fat, butter, milk solids, cream, dripping, suet.
Sugar can also be written as: sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, golden syrup, concentrated fruit juice, raw/organic sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup.
Salt can also be written as: baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, meat/yeast extract, monosodium glutamate (MSG), onion salt, rock salt, sea salt, sodium, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, stock cubes, vegetable salt.
So, the rule of thumb here is: if any of these ingredients are listed in the top 3 of the ingredients list, you should avoid it.
So having a look at the canned soup product below, would you go for it or try to look for an alternative?
Nutrition Information Panel
The Nutrition Information Panel on a food label offers an easy way to choose foods that are the healthiest. It can also be used to decide what the serve of a food is, and if it worth the kilojoules, sugar or salt.
You can use the Nutrition Information Panel to compare similar packaged foods and to decide which product provides less or more nutrients, by comparing each product using the 100g columns.
So what should you look for?
As a rule of thumb, you should aim for the following figures:
Total fat: less than 15g per 100g
Saturated fat: less than 5g per 100g
Sugar: less than 15g per 100g
The exception is if the product has fruit added or is dairy-based
Sodium: 120 - 400mg per 100g
The Australian Dietary Guidelines say that 'food with less than 400mg per 100g are good, and less than 120mg per 100g are best’
Again, this is only a general rule of thumb. However, if you are unsure, check if these ingredients are listed as one of the first three on the ingredients list; if they are, then the product should be avoided.
Health Star Rating (HSR) system
No time to read the Ingredients Lists or the Nutrition Information Panel? Well, look no further than the Health Star Rating system! This system is a front-of-pack labelling scheme developed for use in Australia and New Zealand to help take the guess work out of shopping and help us to make healthier choices easily and quickly.
The Health Stars work by allowing us to quickly compare the nutritional profile of foods within the same food category. The stars are based on total energy (kilojoules/calories), saturated fat, sodium (salt) and the sugar content of the product. Therefore, the higher these components, the less stars the product will display. This system also takes into account healthy components, like fibre, protein, fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content.
Additionally, the Health Star Rating system includes nutrient icons, so you can compare energy, saturated fat, sugars or sodium on the front of packs without going to the Nutrition information Panel. These are all beneficial ingredients– but if you’re time poor like me, and have no time to read through the ingredient lists, you can simply just look at the HSR and choose the product with most stars!
For example, if we have a few products from the same food category (e.g. muesli bars), we can simply just look at the amount of stars on the pack – the more stars, the healthier. Remember though, you can only compare the stars on products from the same category (like cereal with cereal), so don’t go comparing breads with yoghurts!
Another example is this: Last time I was grocery shopping, I had the choice of multiple canned soups, but I had no time to look through the labels because I had to get home to cook dinner! So, thanks to the Health Star Rating, I was able to choose a product very quickly. Which one do you think I went for? (See below)
On that same night, I got a phone call from my housemate asking for a chocolate spread, and as per my usual Dietitian self, I had to check out the range that was available, but I had to do it quickly. So the HSR came to the rescue once again and allowed me to choose the healthier product! (See below)
...I would pick 4.5 stars over 1, any day!
It’s important to know that the HSR system is used on many packaged products, but healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables and lean meats/poultry/seafood, are not packaged and won’t have a health star rating (as you can see in my shopping basket below). This doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means that they are perfect the way they are and don’t need to be rated! These are a vital part of a nutritious diet.
So… now what?
Well, as you can tell – label reading does not have to be overwhelming or confusing. Now that you have these tricks up your sleeve, and you know how to save so much time by using the Health Star Rating system, you have no choice but no make awesome selections of food products next time you go shopping!
Otherwise, I hope I have made healthy shopping less stressful for you! If you have any questions or need more information, make sure you check out
the Health Star Rating System webpage by clicking here.
Lots of love,
This post is created in association with Health Star Rating. You can find out more: www.healthstarrating.gov.au
All opinions are my own and not influenced in any way.