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How to read food labels

Taking a little bit of extra time to read food labels when you’re shopping can have big pay-offs, but it can be hard to make sense of all those numbers. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate the supermarket and decipher food labels.

While we recommend that you base your shopping around real foods that are close to how they are found in nature (many of which don’t have a food label), in a busy world, processed foods can be a quick and easy option. To help you make better choices here is what we recommend you look out for when reading food labels.

What is the ingredients list?

The 'ingredient list' on food labels lists ingredients used in the product in order of size, from greatest to smallest. It can help to identify sources of fat, sugar and salt, and how many extra ingredients have been added.  The shorter the ingredients list and more ingredients that you can recognise - the better!

What do you look for on Nutrition Information Panels (NIPs)?

Food labels can be confusing with all the different numbers and it can be hard to remember what you should be aiming for.

This table is a guide for what to look for on the ‘nutrition information panel’ on food labels.  It is a guide only, and it is important to also consider the whole food and the ingredient list when making your decision.

To make things simple we recommend that when it comes to the 3Ss (saturated fat, sugar and sodium) – LESS is BEST! That is choose products which contain the least amount of saturated fat, sugar and sodium per 100g. If you are watching your weight, also look for foods that contain less energy (calories/kilojoules).

What about Health Stars?

health star food ratings
Health Stars are a front of pack labelling system designed to identify healthier choices within broad food categories - the more stars the better! It is designed to be used on most packaged foods. The star rating is calculated using an algorithm that takes into consideration a number of positive and negative nutrients for a particular food. The positive elements include protein, fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut, seed and legume content. The negative elements include energy, sodium, saturated fat, and sugar.  When comparing packaged foods within a food category, choose the product with the most stars.

Decide how much you can spend:

  • As simple as it may seem, many of us arrive at the supermarket without knowing how much we can spend. If you don't know, you can easily spend more than you can afford. Plan your weekly or monthly food budget in advance and stick to it!

Use a shopping list:

  • Write a shopping list before you go shopping. It will save you time and prevent you from buying extras.

Eat before you shop:

  • You are more likely to buy unnecessary extras, such as chips, lollies and chocolate if you shop when hungry.

Buy in season:

  • Fruit and vegetables are cheaper when they are in season, so make the most of better prices when your favourites are at their best. Remember, it pays to shop around for bargains.  For example, try your local farmers’ market where produce is bound to be fresh.

Adapt your recipes:

  • Experiment by substituting ingredients for less expensive and healthier options. For example, use milk instead of cream, or add beans to a meat casserole.  If fresh vegetables are too expensive or out of season, replace with frozen ones; these are just as good for you.

Cut back on takeaways:

  • Takeaways cost a lot more than home-cooked meals and they usually contain more fat and salt. Instead, try making similar meals at home and keep takeaways as an occasional family treat.

Find out more about heart-healthy eating to help you make healthier choices when you're supermarket shopping.

Find out more about healthy eating