Reading Nutrition Labels: Energy and Fat

It’s not easy reading the nutrition panel on the back of a food product. Often people get caught up trying to interpret them, but they really have no idea what the numbers even mean, and putting them into perspective can be hard!

To make matters worse, there are a lot of products on the shelves that claim to have many health benefits, despite not meeting the FSANZ* guidelines to make these particular claims- are we being fooled when we are shopping?!
*FSANZ are an Australian government agency that develop and administer a ‘code’ that food manufacturers must follow when developing and labelling their food products

I am hoping that the following series of posts will help you to interpret the nutrition panels located on the back of the food products we buy. This way we know what is really in the food we so willingly eat, and whether the claims on our food packaging is really true!

This post will be focussing on 2 nutrients- Energy and Fat. The following posts will look at the remaining nutrients listed in the nutrition panels, as well as additives, organic foods, servings sizes and the health star rating system, to name a few…

So lets begin exploring the nutrients:

Energy: The amount of kilojoules/calories the product contains. Without energy we wouldn’t survive! Energy is mostly extracted from macronutrients in our diet (carbohydrates, protein and fat). Every person will require a different amount of energy due to our genetics, age, sex, exercise habits, etc.

For label reading: Energy can be a useful nutrient to look at when people are trying to cut down their portion sizes and lose weight, however it is usually not the first thing I would suggest someone look at when reading the nutrition information of a food product. Regardless, it is interesting to see how much energy different foods contain, particularly the ‘sometimes’ foods that we have in our diets (you know the ones: chocolate, ice cream, and all those other delicious foods).

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating suggests consuming no more than 2 ½ serves of these ‘sometimes’ foods each day (even less if you’re trying to lose weight). 1 serve of these foods is approximately 600 kilojoules/145 calories. So when reading the panel, take note of what the serving size is (according to that product) and the corresponding energy per serve. If it is more than 600 kJ, it is going to be more than 1 serve of a ‘sometimes’ food. 

You can therefore see that reading the energy content of a food may help people keep track of what they’ve consumed in the day, which may be beneficial for them. However, don’t get too hung up on the energy content of foods as all foods vary considerably in kilojoules, and just because a food is high in energy doesn’t mean it is bad for you! Instead of focusing on energy solely, people may want to try to focus more on eating foods that fit into the food groups and that have minimal processing. They may also want to keep an eye on some of the other nutrients in the panels instead.

Total Fat: An important nutrient for vitamin absorption; it protects the body’s organs and is required for many vital functions.

For label reading: 

  • Generally look for foods with <10g of total fat per 100g.
  • Foods with <3g of total fat per 100g are low fat and are often labelled as such. Be aware that often foods low in fat have higher sugar contents to help preserve flavour.
  • Foods with <0.15g of total fat per 100g are no fat products.
  • For yoghurts and ice cream, try to choose <2g of total fat per 100g.
  • For cheese, try to choose <15g of total fat per 100g.

Other names for fat in the ingredients list: Ingredients are listed in order of their weight, therefore the higher up the ingredient, the more of it in the product. That’s why it is good to know what names manufacturers use for different nutrients. Some of the common substitutes for fat are below:

  • Animal fats/oils
  • Vegetable fats/oils
  • Shortening
  • Tallow
  • Lard
  • Dripping
  • Cream
  • Monoglycerides
  • Diglycerides

Saturated Fat: This is a type of fat that has a role in the structural processes of the body, allows for the effective production of hormones and ensures our temperature regulation is working effectively. However, this nutrient is only needed in small amounts. High intakes of saturated fat can lead to high blood cholesterol levels, therefore increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

For label reading: 

  • <3g per 100g is best
  • Aim for the lowest saturated fat content when comparing products
  • Try choosing lean cuts of meat to reduce saturated fat intake

So why not grab some food packets out of the pantry and read up on what the total fat and saturated fat contents are. Have a look at how much energy the product contains per serve, and start investigating what’s in your food!

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