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Label reading made easy for healthy choices

Eating well involves following the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating by consuming foods from the 5 food groups in the right amounts (averages for adults provided) and to drink plenty of water:

  1. Plenty of vegetables of different types and colours, and legumes/beans – the more the merrier!
  2. Fruit – aiming for 2 pieces per day
  3. Grain (cereal ) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta couscous, oats, quinoa and barley – 4-6 serves per day
  4. Lean meats and poultry, fish eggs tofu, nuts and seeds,  and legumes/beans – 1-3 serves per day
  5. Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat – 2.5-4 serves per day

Avoiding processed foods is helpful in achieving a healthy diet, but practically, it is not always possible.

To avoid being ‘sucked in’ by the marketing words that companies use on their packages to encourage you to choose them, if you learn a couple of easy steps you can know that your decisions and comparisons are based on solid fact.

For us with diabetes, the key points we need to watch (additional to carbohydrate) are fat, saturated fat, sodium and fibre. Then we should also consider if the product has a low glycemic index as that will help to determine how the included carbohydrate will affect our blood glucose levels.

To keep it simple we can break label reading down to two easy steps.

Step One is to look at the ingredients list on the product.

Ingredients are always listed in order of amount included in the product. This means that if you read the first three to four ingredients and they don’t list saturated fat, sugar (or other high-GI starches) and sodium (salt) then already you know that the product is likely to be suitable for diabetes health.

Step Two involves looking at the Nutrition Information Panel.

To make all products equal we choose to look at the ‘per 100g’ column. If you tried to compare using the per serve column you’ll soon notice that not all serving sizes are the same.

By using the ‘per 100g’ column it allows us to look at the macronutrients (fat, saturated fat, protein and carbohydrate) as percentage figures (so we know the source of the calories/kilojoules in the food is coming from) as well as allowing an even comparison against all products which makes memorising the numbers we’re looking for significantly easier.

Next we aim to be as close to these guidelines as possible for:

  • Total Fat at less than 10g/100g (except for margarine, nuts & seeds and avocado)
  • Saturated Fat at less than 2g/100g
  • Sodium to be less than 125mg/100g (up to 400mg/100g in some products such as stocks, breads, savoury crackers and sauces)
  • Fibre to be greater than 7.5g/100g (except for products that don’t contain fibre, like dairy)

Baker IDI Diabetes and Heart Institute produce a helpful resource  for label reading that basically follows this guideline with pictures if you want further information.

When it comes to carbohydrates, that’s where we’re interested in the serving size remembering that 15g of total carbohydrate = one serve. Serving sizes will differ on different brands and similar products, so always check so you don’t assume incorrectly when allowing diabetes medication for these carbohydrate foods.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Sally Marchini

Sally is the Social Media Dietitian with Diabetes Counselling Online, owner of her own business and type 1 diabetic for over 30 years 


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