How to Read a Nutritional Information Panel
Nutritional information panels printed on food packaging, and included in healthy recipes like those on weightloss.com.au, can provide some very valuable information if you know how to read them.
In this article, we will take you step by step through a typical nutrition panel, highlight international variations in nutritional panels, give you tips on interpreting the information contained in them, and put the spotlight on things to look out for.
International variations in Nutritional Information Panels
In some countries nutrition labelling is mandatory, while in others it is voluntary.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is the body responsible for the development and administration of the Australia New Zealand food standards code, which includes food labelling.
In the USA, the equivalent body is the Food and Drug Administration agency (FDA), and in Britain and Europe the equivalent bodies are the Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority respectively.
Because we use Australian and New Zealand food labelling standards in the nutritional panels included with our healthy recipes, we will use these as the primary reference throughout this article, but we will highlight any significant nutrition panel variations relevant in the USA, Britain and Europe.
What is a Nutritional Information Panel?
Nutrition information panels are designed to provide information on the average amount of energy (in kilojoules, calories or both), protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium (a component of salt) in food, as well as any other nutrients about which a nutrition claim is made.
Nutrition information panels must be presented in a standard format on all foods except those that are exempt, such as foods with very little nutritional value (such as mineral water), foods sold unpackaged, foods made and packed at the point of purchase (e.g. bread baked and sold in a bakery) and foods that are packed in very small packages.
If foods usually exempt from having to provide a nutrition information panel make a nutritional claim, such as ‘low fat’ for example, these products are then required to publish a nutrition information panel on their packaging.
In the USA, Britain and Europe, other exemptions may apply. For example, in the US, some companies are exempt from providing a nutrition information panel if the total sales of the product in question doesn’t exceed a certain hurdle, or if the company manufacturing the food employs less than a certain number of people.
The first thing listed in nutritional panels is often the serving size of food the package contains or the recipe makes.
In Australia, New Zealand and Britain, serving sizes are expressed in grams (g) for food or millilitres (ml) for liquids. In the US, serving sizes are typically expressed in ‘common household measures’ such as cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, or ounces (oz), which are often also expressed in grams. In Europe, serving sizes are often expressed in both imperial and metric measures.
At the moment, at least in Australia, there aren’t any official guidelines about what quantity of food represents one serve. In other words, there is no universally accepted standard for serving sizes.
The reason for this is that it is very difficult to unify serving sizes because there are so many different types of food, and what constitutes one serving size varies significantly among individuals.
This is one of the reasons that Australian and New Zealand nutrition panels include nutritional information per serve and per 100g (3.5oz). The 100g column allows people to compare ‘apples with apples’ (figuratively speaking), but more on that in a moment.
The thing to remember and note about the number of servings per pack, or per recipe, is that this figure is an arbitrary number that someone has made up. This explains why serving sizes sometimes vary among the same, or similar, products.
Look out for packaged food that looks like a single serve that has multiple serves listed on the nutritional panel, or even fractions of serves. For example, a small tub of yogurt may have 1.25 (1¼) serves per pack listed on the nutritional panel, even though most people would consider the total content of the tub as one serve.
The number of servings per pack is also often listed with the serving size information. This information is pretty straight forward and is the total pack quantity divided by the serving size.
Per Serve and Per 100g Information
Australian and New Zealand nutrition information panels contain two columns of information, ‘Per Serve’ information and ‘Per 100g’ information. All of the figures contained under these headings are averages.
The ‘Per Serve’ information tells us the total number of nutrients we will consume if we have one whole serve of the food or drink in question, while the ‘Per 100g’ (or ‘Per 100ml’) information allows us to compare similar products with each other.
The handy thing about the quantity ‘Per 100g’ information is that it allows us to quickly calculate the nutritional information in percentage terms. For example, if 10 grams of fat is listed in the ‘Per 100g’ column, the food contains 10% fat.
Energy from food can be expressed in either kilojoules or calories. On weightloss.com.au recipes, we list both.
The energy value is the total amount of kilojoules or calories from protein, fat, carbohydrate, dietary fibre and alcohol that is released when food is used by the body.
One handy calculation to perform is to divide the total energy per serve by 8700 if the energy is expressed in kilojoules or by 2,000 if the energy is expressed in calories.
These figures represent the total average daily recommended energy consumption for the average person according to FSANZ and the FDA. Technically, 8700 kilojoules is closer to 2100 calories than it is 2,000, but using 2,000 is an easier calculation and is pretty close. For example, if the average serve of a food is 870kJ or 200 calories, it will be around 10% of your daily recommended energy intake.
To make it easier for you, all of the recipes on weightloss.com.au have this calculation done for you which is included in the introduction to each recipe, just before the nutritional summary.
Just remember, these figures are “average daily recommendations” for the “average” person, so should be used as a guide only.
Protein is essential for good health and is particularly important for growth and development in children. Generally speaking, people in developed countries eat enough protein to meet their requirements. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and cheese are animal sources of protein. Vegetable sources of protein include lentils, dried peas and beans, nuts and cereals.
According to the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein for men aged between 19 and 70 years old is around 64g per day or 0.84g per kilogram of bodyweight. After the age of 70, the RDI for protein increases to 81g per day or 1.07g per kilogram of bodyweight.
For women (non-pregnant or lactating), the RDI for those aged between 19 and 70 is 46g per day or 0.75g per kilogram of bodyweight. For women 70 and over, the RDI increases to 57g per day or 0.94g per kilogram of bodyweight.
Foods that contain more than 10g of protein per serve are considered to be a ‘good source of protein’.
Fat is listed in the nutrition information panel as total fat (which is the total of the saturated fats, trans fat, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats in the food). A separate entry must also be provided for the amount of saturated fat in the food.
If a nutrition claim is made about cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats or omega -3, omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids, then the nutrition information panel must also include the amount of trans fat, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats and also omega fatty acids if claimed.
For foods to be considered ‘low fat’ they must have 3g of fat or less per 100g.
Fat – Saturated
Saturated fat is stated in addition to total fat because it is considered to be the least healthy of the different types of fat, and health professionals suggest that these be kept to a minimum in our diet.
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal-based foods while polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are predominately in plant-based foods.
To be considered ‘low in saturated fat’, food must contain 1.5g or less of saturated fat per 100g.
Like fats, carbohydrates listed in nutrition information panels include both total carbohydrates (which include both starches and sugars) as well as a separate listing for sugars only.
The nutrition information panel does not need to include fibre unless a nutrition claim is made on the label about fibre, sugar or carbohydrate, for example ‘high in fibre’ or ‘low in sugar’.
Because western diets are generally considered to include too much sugar, sugars are singled out in Nutrition Information Panels to help us make informed decisions about our sugar intake and to help us minimise it.
The amount of sugars in the nutrition information panel will include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, and added sugar.
To be considered ‘low in sugar’, a food should have 5g or less sugar per 100g.
It should also be noted that products labelled ‘no added sugar’ may contain still contain high levels of natural sugars, so if you’re concerned about your sugar intake, always check the nutrition panel.
Like saturated fat and sugar, sodium, which is the component of salt that affects health and high levels have been linked with high blood pressure and stroke, is listed in Nutrition Information Panels.
To be considered ‘low sodium’ foods must contain 120mg or less of sodium per 100g.
All of the nutrients described above should be contained in Nutritional Information Panels because they are considered to be the minimum amount of information required.
Some food producers may choose to include more information than this, and American Nutrition Information Panels are a good example of this. Many American and European Nutrition Information Panels include information on the vitamins included in food, which is very helpful if you are deficient in particular vitamins and minerals.
Detailing all of the possible information that can be contained in Nutrition Information Panels is beyond the scope of this article, but we hope that we’ve shed a little bit of light on the subject and that you’re now have a better understanding of how to read a Nutrition Information Panel and how to interpret the information contained in them.
Good luck with your weight loss and thanks for visiting weightloss.com.au.
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This article was written by Scott Haywood.
Scott is the editor of weightloss.com.au. Scott has developed an expertise in fitness and nutrition, and their roles in weight loss, which led him to launch weightloss.com.au in 2005. Today, weightloss.com.au provides weight loss and fitness information, including hundreds of healthy recipes, weight loss tools and tips, articles, and more, to millions of people around the world, helping them to lead happier, healthier, lives.
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