Understanding what’s in your food
Scratch the surface of any of today’s popular diets (Paleo, sugar free, high fat low carb, 5:2 fasting etc.) and you will find a couple of common themes – eat plenty of whole foods and base your diet on vegetables / plants. For many of us the convenience and practicality offered by packaged foods means they are also included in the weekly grocery shop. So how do you know what to look for in packaged foods to ensure you make the best choices and achieve a balanced diet?
The Nutrition Information Panel
All packaged foods in New Zealand must have a nutrition information panel (NIP). This gives information on key nutrients by serving size and per 100g. Serving size is important because that tells you exactly what you are eating. The per 100g column is important because this allows you make a comparison between similar products with different serving size recommendations. There is no hard and fast rule on what is a good number on a NIP. Rather, use it to make a comparison between products and choose those that are lower in salt, saturated fat and added sugar and higher in positive nutrients like fibre.
Ingredients must be listed in order of magnitude, meaning the ingredient present in the largest amount goes first and so on until the ingredient present in the least amount which goes last. Common allergens (such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, dairy products, eggs, products containing gluten and soy) must be declared on the product label.
Another trick to using the ingredient list is to have a look at ingredients you may be trying to eat less of like sugar and salt. If they appear in the first few ingredients, that’s an indication to use the product in small amounts.
The Health Star Rating
The Health Star Rating system is a government led initiative that scores the nutritional value of packaged foods. The more stars, the healthier the option. Health Star Ratings are a quick and simple way to compare the nutritional value of similar foods without having to spend extra time reading labels. Each product’s Health Star Rating is determined using a calculation based on its components – energy, saturated fat, total sugars, sodium, protein and dietary fibre; as well as fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content of the product. The quantities of these components determines the number of stars for the product. The rider on this is that is only useful in comparing products in the same category – you can’t use it to compare cereal and yoghurt.
By Dietitian, Sarah Hanrahan from the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation