Understanding Food Labels

In a perfect world we’d have gardens full of veggie patches, chickens and berry bushes, but that’s not my reality and there’s a good chance it isn’t yours either. Given it isn’t and that for most of us packaged food is unavoidable, in this article you’ll learn how to make the best decisions about the packaged foods you buy. 

So that your choices around packaged foods lead you as close to real food as possible, you need to be able to navigate a food label. Here are your three steps to navigating food labels.  

Step 1: Review the ingredient list 

When looking at food labels, it’s key to know that ingredients are listed in order of contribution to the end product. The item at the top of the list will be the biggest contributor and so on. If the list of ingredients is more than five long, you might be best to find an alternative. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but in general, more than five ingredients indicates a significantly higher degree of human interference.

Also be aware when looking at the ingredient list that there are a number of key ingredients that we want to avoid and that unfortunately, manufacturers will often use alternative names for these ingredients to throw us off the scent. Here are those to be most aware of: 

  • Sugar, also often referred to as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, coconut sugar, agave syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, golden syrup and raw sugar. They’re all sugar at the end of the day and if any of these appear in your five ingredients, consider that a less than ideal food choice.  
  • Vegetable oils, including canola oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil. Read Ten Reasons Why I Don’t Consume Canola Oil for details on why. 
  • Letters including E621-625 (glutamates) used to enhance flavours are a hidden name for monosodium glutamate i.e. MSG.
  • Gluten can appear in the form of wheat, rye, barley, cous cous, semolina and spelt, just to name a few.
  • Colourings, preservatives and artificial sweeteners won’t be named, rather numbers such as the 100 range (artificial colouring), 200 range (preservatives) and 400 range (artificial sweeteners) will appear. 

Step 2: Review the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) 

The NIP breaks down the nutrients found in the product into categories including energy (calories or kilojoules), macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) and some micronutrients (such as sodium and fibre). The panel will contain information relating to what these contribute per serve and per 100g. 

Firstly, be particularly vigilant of what constitutes a serving size. Manufacturers will often paint the picture of a low calorie or carbohydrate product by grossly downplaying the serving sizes… when was the last time you saw anyone cap a serving of Doritos at 11 pieces?

Secondly, when comparing like products, use the ‘per 100g’ to ensure a comparison of equivalent volumes. The ‘per 100g’ figure advises the percentage contribution of each macronutrient to the total energy figure. For example, a product with 30g sugar/100g would be 30% sugar. When it comes to the sugar column, consider a goal of 8% sugar or less than 8g of sugar per 100g. If you need a visual, remember that 4g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of table sugar – I can’t imagine many proactively adding 2 teaspoons of table sugar to our meals these days, so why would you allow it in your foods products? 

If looking at dairy products, then it’s a little different. The dairy sugar (lactose) will always contribute about 4.7% of the sugar, so subtract that to get a true reflection of the sugar content. 

Remember that fibre is king, and the recommended dietary intake is 20 – 25g per day. It’s a very achievable figure if you’re conscious of how much is in the foods you eat! 

Step 3: Don’t fall into the trap of green washing and marketing

Big Food will make claims about their products to garner shopper’s attention. Though the claims aren’t necessarily untrue, as you’ll learn below, they’re often there based on consumer’s perception of the health value associated with the claim.

Gluten Free. Big Food knows that the semi-health-conscious individuals associate gluten with being unhealthy and vice versa. Please know that gluten free and healthy are not synonymous and it is very possible to choose a gluten free product laden with sugars, pro-inflammatory oils and minimal nutritional value. 

Vegan. Plant-based or ‘vegan’ foods have the potential to be very healthy, yet they also have the potential to be full of sugar, salt, preservatives, colourings and poor-quality oils. Please don’t assume that because a product is marketed as vegan that it’s best choice for you. Read the ingredient list! 

High in fibre. This claim can technically be associated with anything containing 6g of fibre or more per serve. While 25g of fibre/day is the RDI, some sources suggest consuming anywhere between 30 – 50g fibre/day as being better. This being the case, 6g fibre suddenly doesn’t sound quite so ‘high’ and remember to look at how realistic the advised serving size is. 

Low fat. We are thankfully coming out of the era where low fat products were king, however it remains a key marketing ploy by Big Food. Food which are low fat are often flavourless and in order to make them palatable for consumers, they become high in sugar and/or refined salt. Natural foods that have been made low fat have a high degree of human interference and do not belong in our real food category. 

As we always say, where possible choose foods that look the way they did when they came out of the ground, off the tree or from the animal. We do understand however, that there will be exceptions the rule and that you will need to buy pre-hulled nuts, pre-creamed coconuts and pre-cut meats (just to name a few examples). Therefore, understanding the labels of the food being purchased helps to make the best choice possible for our health.

If you need nutritionist support for any of your food making choices you’re welcome to book in for a complimentary 15 minute consultation.


  1. Jane

    Brilliant. Love this. I religiously read the labels and avoid anything with numbers as I know those upset my tummy. Very handy to know about the other labels, ie gluten free isn’t always healthy. I’ve passed this on to my family. Thanks Elly. 🙏🏼💚

  2. Elly McLean

    Really pleased to hear, Jane!

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