Updated 04 March 2014

The parent's guide to food labels

Making sense of food labels and matching them to the needs of family members can be a challenge. Here are some tips from dietician Megan Pentz-Kluyts.

Making sense of food labels and matching them to the needs of family members can be a challenge. Here are some tips from dietician Megan Pentz-Kluyts.

With today's emphasis on health, gathering information on nutrition is becoming a necessity. But making sense of food labels and matching it to the needs of family members can be a challenge.

"I'm often asked by moms how they can determine the nutritional needs of their families when all are different physically and have varying levels of physical activity," says Megan Pentz-Kluyts, registered dietician and nutrition coach.

The key is to match the food intake to the energy expended by each person – get it wrong and they may either gain or lose too much weight, says Pentz-Kluyts.

The hard reality is that food, if taken in excess, will be stored as body fat, even though it provides fuel for the body to power and repair itself, and grow.

"Energy from food is mainly obtained from carbohydrates (for instance starch and sugar), but is also released from the breakdown of proteins and fats," Pentz-Kluyts says. "This energy is measured in kilojoules (kJ). The daily kilojoule intake for an average adult of normal weight and fitness is 8400kJ or lower. This 8400kJ needs to account for all the meals and snacks eaten throughout the day."

Check the nutrition information panel

The best source of information on kilojoule values of food is the "nutrition information panel" now found on the packaging of most foods.

These are specifically laid out in the following manner:

At the top of the table the manufacturer will indicate what the portion size or serving for that food should be, as well as the energy or kilojoule amount derived from a single serving. Protein, carbohydrates, fats, fibre and sodium content are then listed. Following this are the types of vitamins and minerals.

The things to be aware of are:

  • The food's content. You can quickly ascertain this by checking the ingredients list. The highest ingredient by weight will always be listed first. You can then double check the nutritional value of a particular ingredient by referring to the nutrition information panel.
  • The quantity of sugars and salt (sodium), and the types of fats found in the product. By assessing these you can guard your family against the potential risks of lifestyle- related diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular disease.

You should not exceed the following guidelines, advises Pentz-Kluyts:

Sugars – Should be less than 90g per day or 15 teaspoons. This sugar can come from table sugar, dairy, fruit and fruit juices, sweetened products and sweets.

Fats – These are found in various forms, namely unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), saturated and trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are unhealthy and should be restricted to less than 2g and 0.1g respectively per 100g of food.

Fibre – Products are a source of fibre when they contain 3g per 100g. They are considered high in fibre when containing 6g or more per 100g.

Sodium – Salt intake should be less than 6g (2400mg) per day, or 1 slightly raised teaspoon of salt. Restrict sodium intake from products and rather use salt while cooking or at the table – not both.

When looking at your children's dietary requirements, Pentz-Kluyts advises that you look at the content of the following nutrients in these commonly served children's foods:

  • Yoghurt: The sugar, total fat and types of fat
  • Breakfast cereals: Fibre, sugar, total fat, types of fat and sodium
  • Bread: The fibre and sodium content
  • Peanut butter: The total fat, types of fat and sodium (it is a high fat product, so use sparingly)
  • Jam: The sugar (it is a high sugar product, so use sparingly)
  • Cheese wedges: Total fat, types of fat and sodium
  • Fish fingers: Total fat, types of fat and sodium
  • Pasta: The fibre, and whether it is made with healthier durum wheat (this will be listed under the ingredients)
  • Ready-made pasta sauce: Total fat, types of fat and sodium
  • Potato crisps: Total fat, types of fat and sodium
  • Tomato sauce: Sodium
  • Biscuits: Sugar, total fat and types of fat
  • Ice-cream: Sugar, total fat and types of fat

"It doesn't take long to get into the habit of reading food labels. Once you know what's best for your family, you will quickly be able to ascertain which is the healthiest product to take home," says Pentz-Kluyts.

(Picture: Mother and kid from Shutterstock)

- (Health24, updated February 2011)


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