Understanding packaged food labels


Ever wondered what all the things on the back of products food label actually mean. Well we help our clients every day understand what they are eating and what it does to their body and we make it easy to decipher a nutritional label.

The nutritional labels on foods can be hard to read, tricky and misleading. Between the calories per serve (which is usually in place to trick consumers) and the amounts of carbohydrates from fibre, or fats from saturated fats vs trans etc it really does get quite complicated! A lot of products will have statements like “sugar free” and “fat free” yet often are not that good for you and often taste far different from the original product.

We understand it gets confusing to understand and know that you are eating properly, so we have broken it down into easy to understand snippets to help you understand better.

Here are a few things that you should look for when reading the nutrition panels of packaged foods.

Ingredients list

The higher up the list the more the product contains- ie if there were 70% cashews 10% honey and 20% dates the ingredients list would read: cashews, dates, honey in descending order.

Calories per serve

I always opt to look at the measurements per 100g, that way it is a generic figure, no matter what the product is. A lot of companies try and trick consumers by saying that there is a lot of servings per item, meaning less calories however it would mean only a mouthful per serve, not the serving size you would ‘actually’ consume per ser Carbohydrate content

You may notice that underneath the carbohydrate content, it may contain fibre and sugars within the total figure. Dietary fibre is the indigestible part of plants and does not spike your blood sugar levels.

Sugar content

I avoid anything that contains artificial ‘sugar’ however if you are not a 100% clean eater, I would recommend you try and stick to less than 10-15grams of sugar per day. 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams.  There are a few Australian recommendations that say no more than 6-8 teaspoons of added sugars each day, that is 16-32 grams per day of sweeteners. However, this doesn’t take into account sugars that are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables.

Sugar alcohols

Typically found in diet bars or low calorie solutions, they are a type of carbohydrate, commonly used sugar alcohols are erythritol, glycerol, malitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, but there are many more out there! These should be listed under carbohydrates, however a lot of companies try to avoid this as to claim it being the great ‘low carb’ alternative, typically sugar alcohols do not spike insulin like sugar does, therefore a lot of companies argue the fact they do not believe it should be listed under carbohydrates. Their calorie content ranges from 0 to 3 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for sucrose or other sugars. The FDA (USA Food and Drug Administration) regulations do not state that manufacturers have to declare the exact amount of sugar alcohols per serving, however if the label uses sugar free or no added sugar, the sugar alcohol must be listed separately under carbohydrates.


Words like “sweetened with stevia” fool us into a false sense of security, believing that only stevia is the sweetener used, however often it is used along side the sugar alcohols to achieve the desired sweet taste.

Fat content

Saturated fat and trans fat will both come underneath the banner of fats.  Saturated fats are fats that come from eggs, meat and dairy. Trans fats are the bad fats that come from cakes, pastries and many more.

Sodium content

I aim for no more than 1500-2400mg per day of sodium, typical table salt will hold water, bloat you, increases the risk of high blood pressure and many other health issues whereas Himalayan crystals and sea salt is great for your body, nerves and muscles.

Calories per macronutrient

The way that the total calories are calculated is under the basis of:

  • 1 gram of Protein contains 4 calories.
  • 1 gram of Carbohydrates contains 4 calories.
  • 1 gram of Fat contains 9 calories.


The FDA (in the USA) also regulate packaging to help it easier to understand for consumers too, this way you know the exact details that need to be met by laws.

If a food claims to be… It means that one serving of the product contains…
Calorie free Less than 5 calories
Sugar free Less than 0.5 grams of sugar
Fat free Less than 0.5 grams of fat
Low fat 3 grams of fat or less
Reduced fat or less fat At least 25 percent less fat than the regular product
Low in saturated fat 1 gram of saturated fat or less, with not more than 15 percent of the calories coming from saturated fat
Lean Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Extra lean Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Light (lite) At least one-third fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular product, or no more than half the sodium of the regular product
Cholesterol free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat
Low cholesterol 20 or fewer milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Reduced cholesterol At least 25 percent less cholesterol than the regular product and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Sodium free or no sodium Less than 5 milligrams of sodium and no sodium chloride in ingredients
Very low sodium 35 milligrams or less of sodium
Low sodium 140 milligrams or less of sodium
Reduced or less sodium At least 25 percent less sodium than the regular product
High fiber 5 grams or more of fiber
Good source of fiber 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber


After you start understanding labels you will become more familiar with what you are looking for on the labels. You will also be able to gauge what is a high content and a low content fairly quickly.

A great example is canned tomatoes, there are so many to choose from, however some cans contain as much as 13.6grams of sugar per serve versus a can with NO added sugars or salts.

Remember take a more active part in your healthy and lifestyle and you will live a healthy life.

It really is all about choice, education and making the first step in the right direction for your health.

Know your foods and understand what you are eating!

*Information within this article was sourced from the FDA, Heart Org and Google websites.