With the large array of products lining the supermarket shelves, choosing healthier options can be tricky and confusing. Diabetes NSW & ACT Accredited Practising Dietitians help us sort the fact from the fiction.
Bright, colourful packaging and convincing nutrient claims have seen many a consumer fall victim to the ploys of clever food marketing. Discerning whether a food product is healthy, or just sounds healthy is the key to making better choices for you and your family.
Regulated by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), the nutrition information panel and the ingredients list are mandatory items on most packaged foods. For this reason, they are considered most useful for selecting healthier products.
By law, nutrient claims that appear on food packaging need to meet the definitions outlined in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, likening the nutrition information panel and ingredients list to a ‘lie detector’.
Nutrition claims such as ‘light’, ‘97% fat free’, ‘reduced salt’ and ‘source of fibre’ are voluntary statements used by food manufacturers to attract shoppers.
They usually highlight the favourable aspects of the food product and draw your attention away from their least desirable aspects. As such, these claims are best treated with caution.
To help you become a supermarket sleuth, we have unpacked some of the common nutrition claims you’ll see on food labels, and what they mean for you and your health.
‘Reduced salt’ and ‘No added salt’
What it means: ‘Reduced salt’ means the product has at least 25 per cent less salt than the standard product, but could still contain a higher than recommended amount. ‘No added salt’ means literally no salt has been added to the product, but the product may naturally contain sodium.
Verdict: Check the sodium content on the nutrition information panel. Diabetes NSW & ACT Dietitians recommend choosing foods with no more than 400mg sodium per 100g. Best choices contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
‘Reduced fat’ and ‘Low fat’
What it means: ‘Reduced fat’ means the product has at least 25 per cent less fat than the standard product, but could still contain a higher than recommended amount. ‘Low fat’ indicates that drinks contain less than 1.5g of fat per 100ml, and foods contain less than 3g of fat per 100g.
Verdict: Check the total and saturated fat content on the nutrition information panel. Products with these claims will often contain extra salt and added sugar to compensate for the reduction in fat or taste.
Diabetes NSW & ACT Dietitians recommend choosing products that contain less than 5g total fat per 100g, or 5-10g total fat per 100g if the saturated fat is less than ⅓ total fat.
‘No added sugar’
What it means: The product contains no added sugars, honey, malt, or concentrated fruit juice. It may still contain natural sugars or be high in total carbohydrate content.
Verdict: Consider the nutritional quality of the whole food and total carbohydrate per serving. Does the food product offer other nutrients of value such as fibre or calcium? Or is it a ‘discretionary extra’?
‘Low joule’ or ‘Diet’
What it means: The product contains at least 40 per cent less energy than the same quantity of a similar product, and is likely sweetened with an artificial sweetener.
Verdict: If you are aiming to reduce your energy intake for weight loss, diet products can assist.
‘Cholesterol free’ or ‘Low cholesterol’
What it means: ‘Cholesterol free’ products contain no cholesterol but can still be high in other types of fat and kilojoules. ‘Low cholesterol’ products contain no more than 10mg per 100ml for drinks and no more than 20mg per 100g for foods.
Verdict: This claim is misleading. Cholesterol is produced in the liver and can only be found in foods that contain animal products. The ‘cholesterol free’ claim on plant-based products is a marketing ploy.
If you are looking to reduce your cholesterol levels through your diet, it is best to focus on reducing saturated fat and increasing your fibre intake. Cholesterol consumed through animal products has very little effect on your blood cholesterol levels.
‘Baked not fried’ or ‘Toasted’
What it means: ‘Baked not fried’ means that the product has been oven-baked rather than fried. ‘Baked’ or ‘toasted’ means the food product is usually cooked with fat to get a crispy result.
Verdict: Check the fat content on the nutrition information panel. This claim is often seen on foods like crackers, biscuits, or toasted muesli. It is recommended to eat these products occasionally and in small amounts.
What it means: This term may be used when referring to a reduced fat content but may also describe the taste, texture, or colour of a product, such as cooking oil.
Verdict: Compare the total and saturated fat content per 100g to a similar product not labelled lite/light. If the numbers are similar, then this product is offering no added benefit to your health.
Do you check the nutritional information on food packaging?