Understanding food labels

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Food Labels | Glycaemic Index | Daily Intake Guide | What is a serve?

Food Labels

Food labels are a source of very useful information. Currently, by law, all manufactured food must have a food label on it. This information can help you find out if the food is healthy or not. You will notice that food labels will have a nutrition information panel and an ingredients list. Follow these easy steps to understand your food labels:

Nutrition Information Panel

Servings per package: 11

Serving size: 23.2g (4 slices)

Hover over links for a description Per serving Per 100g
Energy 385kJ 1650kJ
Protein 2.7g 11.7g
Fat, total 2.4g 10.g
– Saturated 0.3g 1.5g
Cholesterol 0mg 0mg
Carbohydrate 13.4g 57.8g
– Sugars 0.4g 1.6g
Dietary fibre 2.7g 11.6g
Sodium 132mg 570mg

Ingredient List

Ingredients are listed in decreasing order by weight. In other words, the first ingredient is the major ingredient and the last ingredient would be much smaller. So if sugars, salt or fat are one of the first three ingredients on the list, the product may not be a healthy choice. But be careful because there are some different names for sugar, salt and fat that you need to look out for:


  • Sugar
    sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, lactose, molasses, syrup, malt extract, raw sugar, brown sugar, modified carbohydrate
  • Salt
    sodium, rock salt, onion salt, celery or garlic salt, vegetable salt, MSG, yeast extracts, booster, stock, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate
  • Fat
    Oil, shortening, tallow, lard, dripping, cream, copha, milk solids, monoglycerides, diglycerides, butter, margarine

Nutrition Claims

Be a supermarket sleuth and know what the nutrient claims mean:

  • Low Fat: this food must have 3g of fat or less per 100g, but look at the label because it may be high in sugar instead
  • Fat Free: this food must have 0.15g fat or less per 100g food
  • Lite or Light: always check the nutrition information label on these foods because lite may mean the food is lite in colour or taste, or something else and not lite in salt, fat or sugar
  • No Added Sugar: this food has no ‘added’ sugar but may still be high in sugar so check your label
  • Low Joule or Diet: this food is either low in sugar and/or fat and is may be artificially sweetened
  • No Added Salt: this food has no ‘added’ salt but may still be high in salt so check the label for the salt content
  • Salt Reduced: this food has 25% less salt than a similar product. Lower salt is good but the food may still be high in salt so check the label
  • Low Salt or Low Sodium: this food must have less than 120mg sodium per 100g and is a good choice
  • High Fibre: this food must have more than 3g of fibre per 100g and is a good choice.

Glycaemic Index

Glycaemic Index (GI) is a ranking given to foods to describe how quickly the carbohydrate they contain is digested and absorbed into the blood. Carbohydrate is an important energy source for the body and carbohydrate containing foods are an important part of a healthy diet.

Foods that are quickly digested and absorbed have a high GI whilst those which are slowly digested and absorbed have a low GI. Foods with a high GI lead to simple sugar, or glucose being absorbed into the blood quickly while those with a low GI have the opposite effect.

Low GI foods include:

  • wholegrain bread
  • pasta
  • oats
  • apples, apricots and oranges
  • yoghurt and milk
  • dried beans and lentils
  • cashews, chestnuts and pecans

High GI foods include:

  • white and wholemeal bread
  • processed cereals
  • short-grain rice
  • potato
  • most cracker biscuits
  • watermelon

Eating low GI foods may:

  • help to keep hunger at bay for longer after eating
  • provide gradual, continuous supply of energy from one meal to the next
  • help to keep blood glucose levels stable in those with diabetes, by providing a slower, more sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream.

Recent studies also show that eating low GI foods may help to prevent some diseases.

Daily Intake Guide

You may have noticed labels on foods in supermarkets and food outlets called Percent Daily Intake or %DI. This shows you the percentage of energy and nutrients in a serve of the product. Because it is on the front of food packaging it’s easy to see, and can be a useful guide for choosing foods to best meet your nutrient needs.

What is the Daily Intake Guide?

The Daily Intake Guide or %DI is a set of reference values for an acceptable intake of a set of nutrients including:

  • Energy
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Saturated fatty acids
  • Carbohydrate
  • Sugars
  • Sodium
  • Dietary fibre

%DI is based on the recommended amounts of energy and nutrients needed for an average adult diet to meet their nutritional needs. The percentages are calculated based on the below figures:

Nutrient Reference Value used in %DI
Energy 8700 kJ
Protein 50 g
Fat 70 g
Saturated fatty acids 24 g
Carbohydrate 310 g
Sodium 2300 mg
Sugars 90 g
Dietary fibre 30 g

As these figures are based on an average adult diet, you may need more or less than the above figures and this will vary based on your age, height, weight, sex and how much activity or exercise you do.

You can also calculate your %DI for energy at the My Daily Intake Website.

How do I use the Daily Intake Guide?

You can use %DI labels to find out what is in a serve and the percentage that the serve will contribute to your daily intake. You can also use the %DI to compare similar products so that you can choose the product that more closely matches the nutrients that you need. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, you would choose the product with the lowest percent for energy, lowest saturated fat and highest fibre.


For individualised advice on using the %DI or calculating the %DI to meet your nutritional needs look no further than an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

What is a serve?

Serve or portion sizes in Australia have been on the rise for many years, just think of how the size of a ‘cookie’ or muffin has changed. While this may seem like value for money, the news isn’t as great for our waistlines. One of the keys to a healthy weight while still getting all the nutrients and energy you need to enjoy life, is watching your portions or serve sizes.

Serve size is the amount of food you eat at one time. The recently updated Australian Dietary Guidelines has identified some basic serve sizes to help you get started:

Food One serve Example
Pasta ½ cup of cooked pasta or just under 1/4 cup dry pasta 1 small bowl cooked
Bread 1 thin slice bread or ½ bread roll or flatbread
Cereal 2/3 cup cereal flakes or ½ cup cup of porridge or 1/4 cup muesli 1 small bowl of cereal
Potato ½ cup medium potato About the half the size as a closed fist
Cooked vegetables – eg broccoli, cauliflower, beans, carrot etc ½ cup Aim to have your veggies take up half of your plate at lunch and dinner
Salad vegetables – eg lettuce, tomato, cucumber etc 1 cup
Corn on the cob 1 small cob  ½ cup corn
Fruit 1 medium piece Medium fruits are apples, pears, bananas etc
2 small pieces Small fruits are apricots, kiwi fruits, plums etc
Fruit juice ½ cup (no added sugar) ½ cup of fruit juice has the same value as a whole apple
Sultanas/dried apricots 1 ½ tablespoons/4 dried apricots About the same amount that you can comfortably hold in your hand
Milk 1 cup
Cheese 40g cheese or 2 thin slices About the same size as a match box
Yoghurt 2/3 cup or 200g yoghurt 1 small carton
Steak/cooked lean chicken 65g cooked/80g cooked About the same size as your palm without your fingers
Fish 100g cooked About the same size as your hand including your fingers
Mince meat ½ cup cooked
Eggs 2 large eggs
Nuts – eg almonds, peanuts 1/3 cup or 30g  A small handful
Click on the links below to see what an appropriate portion size looks like.VegetablesFruitMeat and Protein


Breads and Cereals


Images from this = that: a life size photo guide to food serves courtesy of www.foodtalk.com.au

If you want to indulge in a treat food, enjoy a small portion and savour the flavour. To avoid temptation, buy single serves or individual portions of treat foods rather than big blocks of chocolate or family sized packets of biscuits. If you are eating out, try sharing a dessert or ask for an entrée serve size of a meal, especially if you know that serving sizes are large and order a side serve of salad or vegetables.

The number of serves from each food group you need to meet your nutritional needs depends on many things such as your age, height, weight and how active you are. For individualised advice about how many serves you need look no further than an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Try to cut down on your serve sizes to match those in this table. Look at the energy comparison of this snack food:


Large Muffin 190g: 2240kJ

Medium Muffin 80g: 945kJ


For individualised advice on reading food labels look no further than an Accredited Practising Dietitian