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Healthy shopping: how to read food labels

Monday 26 June 2017

A woman stands in the grocery store, reading hte infor
Knowing how to read food labels can help you make healthy decisions at the supermarket.

You’re in the supermarket, ticking off items on a long grocery list. Your phone is ringing, your kid is running away up the aisle and your trolley’s got a bung wheel. For every food item on your list, there are ten different options. How are you supposed to decide which foods or drinks are the healthiest to feed you and your family?

In a world of endless options manufacturers must compete for business so they’ll use different marketing techniques to try to convince us to buy their products by using words like ‘natural’ or ‘plant derived’ on the packaging. But it can be hard to tell which foods are really good for you and which have hidden, unhealthy ingredients.

Next time you’re struggling at the grocery shop to decide which product is the healthier choice, follow the tips below to make a confident choice.

Start with fresh produce

As much as you can, keep your grocery list to fresh produce and single ingredient items. You don’t need an ‘ingredients list’ to know that a carrot is a carrot, an apple is an apple or a chicken breast is a cut of chicken.

Fill your list with items from the fruit and vegetables section first, adding in some protein, like lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils and pulses, before you think about what to buy from the pre-prepared or packaged food aisles.

Understand the nutrition information panel

This panel tells you how the different measurements of nutrients stack up for the particular food item and how many servings you should expect to get out of the package of food.

The serving size will tell you how much of the food the manufacturer expects you will eat in one sitting but remember these are only a guide and may not be the same as the serve sizes recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. For example, a packet of biscuits might have a recommended serving size of two biscuits. Loose ingredients can be measured in weight or volume, 40g of cereal for example, or 200ml of a drink.

The nutrition information panel lists the amount of energy, protein, fat, fibre, sugars and sodium (salt) are in the food. The nutrition information in the table will be divided up by servings and per 100g of the food. The ‘per serve’ information is a useful way of knowing exactly what you’re eating in each serve, while ‘per 100g’ can help you compare the food to other similar products.

An image showing an example of Nutrition Information panel on a food package, showing 'per serve' and 'per 100g' amounts.

Read the ingredients list

All packaged foods will have a list of the ingredients in the food on the back or side of the package. These ingredients are listed by weight, in order of the ingredients used most to least. It may take a bit of extra time to read the labels but once you know what to look for it will become a faster process.

When reading the ingredients list, look for words that you know are whole food ingredients, like milk or banana, rather than additives or chemicals you don’t recognise. Keep an eye out for sugars, fats and salts high up in the list. If you see these listed in the first few ingredients, this means that product will have a high ratio of these ingredients to others, making them less healthy.

Manufacturers can list sugars, fats and salts under a variety of names, so be on the lookout for these words as well. We’ve collected a list of the names that these ingredients might be called on the Healthier. Happier. Demystifying food labels factsheet [PDF 219 KB].

An example of the ingredients list on a food packet, which demonstrates how sugars, fats and salt can be listed in different ways by manufacturers.

Recommended daily intake

For some foods and drinks, the nutrition panel will include information about the ‘recommended daily intake’ of a certain nutrient per serve. For example a juice might say it contains 50% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C per serve. This means that one serve of the juice contains half the amount of vitamin C recommended for an ‘average adult’. When using this tool, remember your individual daily needs may be different from the ‘average adult’ which is based on an 8700kJ diet.

While it’s useful to know how your food or drink’s nutrient content measures up, remember that a good level of one nutrient doesn’t make a food healthy, if it’s high in other nutrients. When reading the packaging, take the nutrition information and ingredients into consideration as a whole, rather than just focusing in on parts.

If you want to learn more about the recommended daily intakes of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, specifically for you, the Eat for Health Daily Nutrient Requirements Calculator can tell you what you should be aiming for based on your age and gender.

Health Star Rating

The Health Star Rating is another tool to help you make healthier food and drink choices, and compare food items with similar products.

Located on the front of food packaging, the system rates packaged food and drink through the use of stars, with more stars meaning a healthier choice. The star rating takes into consideration a number of factors, including the energy, or kilojoules, included in the food or drink, saturated fat, salt, sugars and other nutrients like fibre and protein. The stars are calculated on a 100g or 100ml serve of the product, so you can compare different products at a glance.

Next steps

Understanding food labels can help you make healthy decisions more easily. Take time to write a meal plan and shopping list so you’re not heading into the grocery store without a strategy, and when you’re there use food labels to help you choose healthier options to feed you and your family.

Last updated: 26 June 2017