We are all very familiar with the nutritional panel commonly found on packaged food products and being able to understand it is important for making informed dietary choices. Informed choices ensure your body is getting the essential nutrients your body needs to function properly and can also help with weight management, disease prevention and maintaining adequate energy levels.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you de code and interpret a nutritional panel.
1. Serving Size
Start by checking the serving size, which indicates the portion size the nutrient information is based on. Make sure to compare this serving size to the amount you actually plan to consume. Often, what you imagined to be ‘one serve’ could be completely different from reality.
2. Calories / Kilojoules
Look at the "Calories" or “kJ” section to determine how many calories are in one serving of the product. This information helps you gauge the energy content of the food. Our bodies require energy to function correctly in terms of regular bodily processes, and even more so if we live an active lifestyle and participate in regular exercise. The food and drink we consume provides us with the energy needed to experience everyday movement and functioning.
If you want to know more about calories, read our blog: Calorie Deficit + Surplus explained.
Macronutrients are the nutrients our bodies require in larger quantities.
Total Fat: This section provides information about the total fat content in grams and the breakdown of fat into saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Pay attention to saturated and trans fats, as these are generally less healthy fats.
Cholesterol: This indicates the amount of cholesterol in milligrams. High cholesterol intake may be a concern for some individuals, so be mindful of this value.
Sodium: The sodium content is listed in milligrams. High sodium intake can contribute to high blood pressure, so consider your daily sodium goals when assessing this value.
Total Carbohydrates: This section provides the total carbohydrate content in grams. It may also break down carbohydrates into dietary fibre and sugars. Fiber is beneficial for digestion, while added sugars should be limited. Learn more about carbs in or blog: Carbohydrates: A Beginner's Guide to Getting a Pre-workout Energy Boost
Protein: The protein content is listed in grams. Protein is essential for various bodily functions, and the amount you need can vary based on factors like activity level and age. Our body uses the amino acids in protein to create hormones and enzymes as well as build and repair cells, muscles and bones. It can also promote proper growth and development throughout our life stages, and foster muscle growth, maintenance and recovery. Learn more about protein in our blog: Ultimate guide to protein.
Learn more about macronutrients and their role in our bodies here.
Micronutrients are the nutrients our bodies require in smaller quantities.
Vitamins and Minerals: The nutritional panel often includes information about essential vitamins and minerals. These percentages are based on a daily reference intake, typically a 2,000-calorie diet. Aim to get 100% or more of essential nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and iron.
5. Percent Daily Value (% DV)
The % DV helps you assess how a serving of the food fits into your daily nutrient intake. It's based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories, so adjust it according to your specific calorie needs. A general rule is that 5% or less is considered low, while 20% or more is high.
6. Additional Information
Some labels may provide extra details, such as specific vitamins (e.g., vitamin C), dietary fiber, or other health claims.
7. Allergen Information
Manufacturers often include information about common allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, milk, eggs, and fish. This is crucial for individuals with food allergies.
8. Nutrient Claims
Look for nutrient claims like "low fat," "high fiber," or "good source of protein." These claims are regulated by authorities and can provide quick information about the product's nutritional characteristics.
9. Expiration Date
Check the expiration date to ensure the product is safe to consume.
The ingredient list is usually located below the nutrition facts label, with the ingredients listed in descending order by weight. This means the ingredients that weigh the most are first and the ingredients that weigh the least are last.
Within the ingredient list, you want to look out for problematic ingredients like additives, colours, artificial sweeteners or fillers. These types of ingredients are commonly added to enhance the flavour, appearance, texture or shelf life of the food product.
Some other types of additives include:
Emulsifiers – keep fats from clotting together
Colours – to enhance colour
Preservatives – stop microbes from multiplying and spoiling the food
Thickeners and vegetable gums – enhance texture and consistency
Usually food additives are generally ok to consume in small amounts and have been approved by a governing body. Some people however, may be sensitive to some food additives and could have a reaction after consuming. In this case, it is best to talk to a health professional for proper diagnosis.
In Australia the use of food additives is governed by the food standards code which is governed by the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ). Additives must go through rigorous testing before being approved and if there is any doubt about the safety of an ingredient, it will not pass.
Education around nutrition labels and what to look out for means you can make more informed choices about the foods you eat and therefore better align them with your personal dietary goals and preferences.
- How To Read Food and Beverage Labels. (n.d.). National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-read-food-and-beverage-labels
- Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.). Food additives. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/food-additives