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Fats, sugar, carbs: Here’s how to read food labels for healthy and clean eating

Understanding nutrition labels on food packaging can help you make better food choices and manage your intake of energy, sugar, fats, proteins, fibre, salt, minerals, and vitamins. Picture: Pexels/Laura James

Understanding nutrition labels on food packaging can help you make better food choices and manage your intake of energy, sugar, fats, proteins, fibre, salt, minerals, and vitamins. Picture: Pexels/Laura James

Published Jul 5, 2022

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Claims and health-related benefits often approved on food packaging include "no added sugar", "97 percent fat-free", "wholegrain", and "natural", along with a number of tables, numbers and nutrients.

Often the information is so dense it is almost as if you need a doctor's degree in nutrition to fully comprehend it all.

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The good news is that there is an easy way to decode the nutritional make-up of any packaged foods, and all you need to do is scan a couple of key sections of any label to get all the information you need.

Below, corporate nutritionist and Eat Well Live Well ambassador Arthur Ramoroka outlines easy ways to understand and read food labels. After reading through, you will be able to confidently pick up any item at the store and determine if it is a healthy option.

Ramoroka notes that understanding nutrition labels on food packaging can help you make better food choices and manage your intake of energy, sugar, fats, proteins, fibre, salt, minerals and vitamins.

“Everyone’s nutritional needs differ, depending on their current health, age, gender, energy requirements and activity level. For example, if an adult is looking to increase their daily fibre intake (the goal is 25g per day), reading and understanding nutrition labels to see which foods -- and in what quantities -- would be most beneficial, and can help achieve that goal,” he says.

Ramoroka says you can use the illustration below to help adjust your eating habits and ensure you eat a variety of foods so that you meet your needs, using different sources for your daily essentials.

Also sharing what a Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) is and why it is important, he says GDA helps you to maintain a balanced and healthy diet.

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“GDAs help you keep a check on the amounts of nutrients in food that should be monitored, namely energy, sugars, fats, saturates and salt,” says Ramoroka. “Once you understand your GDA and how each thing you eat contributes to it, you can properly understand what you’re putting into your body. That means you can better understand how you can maximise good nutrients for optimum health and minimise your intake of nutrients that could increase your chances of contracting a lifestyle disease.”

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Here’s his simple breakdown of how much GDA an adult needs when it comes to certain nutrients.

Energy

Energy is measured in kilojoules (KJ). Energy is used during various activities, whether it’s shopping, sitting at your desk or even sleeping. To maintain a balanced lifestyle, we need to be sure to return the same amount of kilojoules we use up in a day, with nutritious food. An adult’s GDA is 8400 kJ – though this varies depending on the amount of daily activity one does.

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Sugars

Sugars give your body energy. Many of us tend to have a sweet tooth, so it’s very important to keep your sugar intake during the course of the day below the recommended GDA limit. An adult’s GDA for total sugars is 90g, which includes 50g of added sugars. To have a balanced diet, cutting out fats completely is not a good idea. Fats are essential to some of the body’s functions. An adult's GDA for fats is 70g.

Saturated fat

Try to keep saturates – otherwise known as saturated fat – to a minimum. Consuming excess saturated fat can heighten your cholesterol level in the blood, which can also increase your risk of developing heart disease. An adult’s GDA for saturates is 20g.

Salt

Salt gives food flavour, however, too much salt in your diet can increase the risk of certain diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. That is why it is recommended to keep your salt intake below that to help avoid any unnecessary health risks. An adult’s GDA for salt is 5g.

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