Food labels: beyond the bluster

Posted by Lillian Morton on 12 Aug 2015

Man reading label on the back of a tin of food in a supermarket

It’s an easy trap to fall into – we walk into the supermarket, find the shelf we need, observe the array of colours and ticks and badges and ‘health markers’ and grab the one that catches our eye:

‘Oh, this one’s gluten free.’

‘See? This badge says it’s healthy!’

Well, no. It’s healthy for the wallet of the advertising company’s executive, but not for you.

Basically, we’re being duped by all this food marketing. Essentially, what we do when we go to the supermarket is shop with our eyes and look at the front of the box – all the glossy colours, and all the health claims on the front. When what we should be doing is interpreting the stuff on the back.

So the big question – if we’re concerned about healthy food, what should we go by?


Nothing – and I mean nothing – on the front of the packet is important. Attracted because it has a tick, badge, thumbs up, or smiling cartoon character? Ignore it.

Turn the packet around and get to the important stuff. Take immediate note of two things. Firstly, the ingredients list. Secondly, the nutritional information.

Legally, this must be displayed on any manufactured or processed product. So there’s no excuse not to be checking your food first.



The ingredients list is simple. In order of most prevalent to least, every ingredient in the product must be displayed.

The longer the list, the more processed that food is. The shorter the list, the more whole-food that is.

Take rolled oats – it’s just rolled oats, that’s the only ingredient in it. That’s an awesome food, not processed at all, not too high in sodium or anything.



Step three is the one that might scare people off. When you look at the back of the pack, the grid full of jargon and numbers stands out – but only because it seems frightening.

Here’s an example:

nutrition figure 

When you know how to decipher the message in front of you, it becomes much easier.

  • Energy, in New Zealand, is measured in kilojoules. In the USA, amongst other places, it’s measured in calories. The two are very different – a kilojoule is 4.2 times a calorie (so 100 calories is 420 kilojoules). So you need to be aware of this difference, and if you’re wanting to watch your energy intake, make sure you know whether you’re looking at calories or kilojoules, and what those mean.
  • Watching your sugar? Check the carbohydrates, where sugar is a subheading. Take, as an example, a carbohydrate measurement of 20 grams. If sugars are 19 grams, then the predominant carbohydrate is sugar – and we don’t want that.
  • Protein is a simple measurement – it hides in plain sight. There’s no trick, no sleight of hand. With the protein value, what you see is what you get.
  • Fibre is good. High in fibre is what you want, because fibre is really good for you.
  • Fat is sometimes broken up into saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The main thing to take into account with the fat levels are that they’re the key measurement to go by if you have heart disease. Ignore any heart-health claims elsewhere on the packet, if you’re suffering from heart disease, watch your fat intake.
  • Sodium is also displayed, and sodium is the gauge that you need to observe closely if you’re suffering from high blood pressure. If that’s something you have a problem with, make sure you’re lowering your sodium consumption.

So there you have it – a guide to food shopping. It really comes down to what you need to watch – if heart disease is your problem, watch the fat. If it’s high blood pressure, check the sodium. If you’re watching energy intake, make sure you know what you’re looking at, and make sure you know the difference and correlations between sugar and carbohydrates.

So know what you’re looking for – and then get past the front of the box, with the marketing claims and glossy colours, and get onto the back of the pack.

That’s the crux of it all: don’t get tricked when you go food shopping. Knowing what to look for really is super easy.

About the Author

Lillian Morton

Lillian Morton is a performance nutritionist and senior academic staff member. She holds an MSc in sport and exercise science and is currently working towards her PhD.