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Reading food labels

Reading food labels
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The information supplied on food labels is a great place to look when deciding if a food is healthy or not so healthy. Food labels can be a little confusing if you don’t know what to look for, though. So we will help you to understand what information is important. Nutrition information panels vary from country to country. This is an example of one that you would find in Australia. It contains values for energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, and sugars. Other nutrients such as fibre or calcium are included when a nutritional claim is made. For example, this is a good source of fibre.
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Looking at the serving size column will tell you how much of the nutrients you will consume for a serving size. But beware, manufacturers sometimes use serving sizes that are lower than what you would normally eat. So it’s always important to check the serving size and the number of servings in a package. To compare two products, look at the per hundred grams column for both products to see the differences. Not all labels have a per 100 grams column, though. For example, in the USA there is no 100 grams column. But there is a percentage daily value column which tells you how much each nutrient will contribute to the recommended daily amount for an adult.
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The ingredients list lists foods in order of weight from the largest weight to the lowest weight. If types of sugar or saturated fat are listed as one of the first three ingredients on a product, then it’s probably not a healthy choice. Products must also at list the presence of any allergens in the product, such as milk, nuts, egg, and soy. Some countries have additional guards on packaging to assist in making healthier choices. The United Kingdom, for example, has introduced a traffic light system of green, amber, and red, which rates the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt in a product. Similarly, in Australia a health style rating has been introduced.
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Ratings range from half a star to five stars and the more stars the better. The rating is based on energy, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. The content of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes is also considered, as well as beneficial nutrients, such as fibre or protein. Both the UK and Australian systems are voluntary, so manufacturers aren’t required to have a rating on their products.
Food labels can be a little confusing if you don’t know what to look for. So we will help you understand what information is important.
Nutrition information panels vary from country to country. This is an example of one that you would find in Australia. It contains values for energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sugars. Other nutrients such as fibre or calcium are included when a nutritional claim is made (e.g. ‘good source of fibre’).
Looking at the serving size column will tell you how much of the nutrients you will consume for a serving size. But beware, manufacturers sometimes use serving sizes that are lower than what you would actually eat, so it is always important to check the serving size and the number of servings in a packet. To compare two products, look at the per 100g column for both products to see the differences. The below image is a guide of what to look for when you are looking at these components. For example, when looking at saturated fat, look for the product with the lowest amount – ideally <3g per 100g.
The ingredients list lists foods in order of weight from the largest weight to the lowest weight. If types of sugar or saturated fat are listed as one of the first three ingredients on a product, then it is probably not a healthy choice. Products must also list the presence of any allergens in the product such as milk, nuts, egg and soy.
food label characteristics (Click to expand)
Looking at the labels for the two products below, it is easy to compare the amounts of total energy, saturated fat and sugars. Which product would be the best choice?
comparison of two food labels (Click to expand)
Some countries have additional guides on packaging to assist in making healthier choices. The United Kingdom has introduced a traffic light system (green, amber and red) which rates the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a product. Similarly, in Australia a Health Star rating has been introduced. Ratings range from ½ star to 5 stars (the more stars the better). The rating is based on energy, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. The content of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes is also considered as well as beneficial nutrients such as fibre or protein. Both the UK and Australian systems are voluntary, so manufacturers are not required to have a rating on their products.

Optional discussion:

Locate a food from your country marketed to children 0-5 that contains an unsafe or unhealthy ingredient and discuss the following questions in the comments section.
  • How is this food marketed to young children?
  • What is listed on the label that is unhealthy for young children?
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