Decoding Food Labels

Decoding food labels can be a nightmare. How much sugar, salt and fat is in each product? Which additives are nasty? Healthy Food Guide Nutritionist, Claire Turnball, shares some of her top tips on navigating food labels and making healthy choices.

Claire Turnball2

Parents are more aware of reading labels on food packaging than ever before – what ingredients should they be looking out for and why?

Sadly there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to making the right food choices.

There are so many different types of food that we use in such varied quantities that it often comes down to how much and how often you are eating a particular food.

You can, however, make small changes every day - start by opting for whole foods that are minimally processed. With packaged foods, look for shorter ingredients lists, with names you recognise.

A lot of people are frightened of  E-numbers, which are added to food for a number of reasons – to act as a preservative, add colour or enhance flavours and texture. But they are not all as terrifying as you think, some are simple such as Vitamin C, others can be more artificial. The additives used in New Zealand all comply with food safety laws, but reducing the amount of synthetic colours, artificial sweeteners and MSG is a step in the right direction.

Many products are labelled  ‘low sugar’ or ‘reduced sugar’ – how much sugar are we allowed each day?

As a guide, the World Health Organisation suggests adults need to limit their free sugars to less than five per cent of their daily calorie intake, which equates to 26grams or six teaspoons per day.

For younger children who have lower calorie needs than adults, they can have even less than this.

These ‘free’ sugars include white sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple or golden syrup, honey and the sugar in fruit juice.
It doesn’t include natural sugars in whole fruit or milk.

What foods are packed full of sugar and how can we avoid this?

Muesli bars and snack foods can often be high in sugar. A good alternative is giving children unsalted nuts and seeds (if they’re
at an age where it’s safe to chew them well) or whole fruit with
a slice of cheese instead.

When it comes to buying yoghurt, it’s best to choose unsweetened and add natural flavours from fruit like frozen berries or canned peaches blended through, rather than pre-sweetened versions with added white sugar.

Be mindful of products that say 'reduced' as they are only reduced in fat/sugar/salt compared to the standard product. If the original was not that healthy to start with, the reduced product may not be that much better.

 Some key nutrients kids need 

Iron: In New Zealand 80 per cent of toddlers don’t get enough iron. From the age of six months iron stores can start to run low for babies, and from seven months, a baby has higher iron needs than their dad so it’s essential to introduce iron-rich foods. This can be iron fortified baby rice, pureed/sieved meat mixed with fruits and vegetables, or cooked and grated liver (up to three teaspoons per week).

Calcium: If your child is unable to tolerate dairy, then it’s important whatever alternative milks you choose are adequately fortified with calcium. Not all of them are, so it pays to check. Childhood is an essential time for children to build up their bone mass and without enough calcium, it’s likely to cause issues later on in life.

Omega 3: Salmon is the best way to up Omega 3 –
in children, it can be added to the diet in a fish pie, fish burger patties or you can cut up a small amount and stir it into scrambled eggs.

Selenium: This is a big one as selenium is short in our soils. You can grate a whole Brazil nut onto porridge for breakfast, and when the child gets a bit older, they can eat the nuts whole.

With more organic foods on the supermarket shelves, should we be focussed on them?

The choice to eat organic foods comes down to budget and personal preference. It’s best to include a wide variety of whole, minimally processed foods for a balanced diet.

The main thing is to make sure children get enough vegetables – 60 per cent of children don’t eat enough veges and 21 per cent don’t get enough fruit. One thing we can all do is to thoroughly wash any fruit and vegetables we buy before eating them.

Remember as a parent what you eat is just as important as what you tell your kids to eat.

 For more information on E numbers visit: or about Claire at