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Cut the confusion out of food labels

Ever stand in the supermarket trying to make sense of ticks, stars and nutrition panels? Find out what all those food labels mean and how to use them.

Find out what all those food labels mean and how to use them.

When we're browsing the supermarkets for healthier foods, there’s certainly a lot to consider. Companies are legally required to include specific information on packaging like the nutrition information panel and a list of ingredients.

They may also choose to add images, recipes, nutrition or health claims, symbols or logos. All of these components are strategically pieced together (with design and flair) to influence what we buy and ultimately what we eat.

Reading labels is one way to guide healthier choices, when buying packaged foods. However, given the copious amount of information found on the pack (whether it be numbers, claims or symbols) it’s no wonder many of us find this an overwhelming task.

The first step to understanding food labels is knowing exactly what they mean and how to use them. Let’s take a close look as some of the common food labelling systems and programmes found on our supermarket shelves.

Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)

  • This table is the place to check the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a food (both ‘per serve’ and ‘per 100g’). It also gives an indication of serve size which is set by the manufacturer. It is important to note that this may vary, depending on the manufacturer. This can mean serve size is subject to variation between products. Most foods require a NIP, however, there are a few exceptions like herbs, unpackaged foods, tea and coffee.
  • Because serve size can vary between products, the ‘per 100g’ column is useful when comparing the nutritional information. We recommend opting for the food that is lower in saturated fat, sugar and/or sodium and higher in fibre.

Ingredients list

  • Here, you can see exactly what the food is made up of.
  • Ingredients must be listed in descending order. For example, if sugar is towards the start of the list, the product contains a greater proportion of this ingredient.

Nutrition and health claims

  • ‘Fat-free’, ‘No added sugar’, ‘High in fibre’ – do these phrases sounds familiar? Nutrition and health claims are voluntary statements made by food businesses which are regulated by the Food Standards Code.
  • In a nutshell, nutrition claims are about the content of certain nutrients or substances in food (e.g. ‘contains whole grains’) whereas health claims relate to a relationship between a food product and health (e.g. ‘a high intake of vegetables reduces the risk of coronary heart disease’).
  • Take care when navigating your way through nutrition and health claims as sometimes they can be misleading. Just because a product is ‘fat-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy, as these products can be high in sugar or sodium.

The Heart Foundation Tick

  • Many of you will be familiar with this red and white logo on packaged foods. The Tick programme has been around for more than 21 years, helping kiwis make healthier food choices within food categories.
  • Food companies can choose to register products with the Tick programme. Foods that carry the Tick logo must meet strict category-specific criteria for a range of nutrients including energy (kJ) saturated and trans-fat and sodium. Last year, sugar criteria was also introduced into relevant categories such as breakfast cereal, and nut and seed bars. As well as this, the Tick aims to encourage positive nutrients or ingredients for health such as fruit and vegetable content, calcium or fibre.
  • In 2014, a second tier to the programme - Two Ticks - was introduced. While Tick continues to help you identify healthier choices within each category, Two Ticks is only on ‘core foods’ that should be making up the bulk of our shopping trolleys.

Health Star Rating System

  • The Health Star Rating system is a voluntary system designed to help consumers make healthier choices. Overseen by government, the Health Star Rating system uses a star rating scale of half a star to 5 stars that takes into account a combination of nutrients. Foods with more stars have better nutritional value. Just like the Tick, it is designed for packaged foods only and products should be compared within category.

So, which of the above should we be using?

When it comes to food labelling, there is no one perfect system. Depending on the type of information you’re after and how much time you have on hand, one (or a combination) of the above systems can be used to guide healthier choices, when buying packaged foods.

But how do these types of foods fit into the context of a healthy eating pattern?

While packaged foods can be convenient and tasty, some of them can be heavily processed, refined and contain high levels of added saturated fats, sugar and salt. Many people wonder whether we should be eating them at all. Although there is no need to eliminate these foods completely, it’s important to think about portion sizes, how often you’re eating them and opt for healthier choices. Just because a product has the Tick or 4.5 stars doesn’t mean you can overindulge.

The Ministry of Health and the Heart Foundation recommend we choose and/or prepare foods and drinks that are mostly ‘whole’ and less processed (many of these don’t come in packages). A heart healthy dietary pattern is based largely on minimally processed foods and includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, some whole grains in place of refined grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and other sources of healthy fats such as oily fish, and may contain non-processed lean meats or poultry and/or dairy. These are the foods that should make up the bulk of our shopping trolley.