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How to: Decipher a food label

July 2011

Picking the healthy option isn't always straightforward. Walking down the supermarket aisle can be daunting when faced with the variety of options on the shelves.  And it's even trickier if you are trying to untangle the marketing-spin from the facts to choose the healthy option.

If you are not a mathematician, a dietitian or a nutritionist then many labels won't make sense – unless you can calculate what a serve is and how the nutritional value correlates to your recommended daily intake.

That's why we have put together some simple tips to help you see through the spin and pick the healthy options:

  • Be wary of positive nutrition claims on the front of food packages. It may well be '20% of your daily wholegrain target' but this doesn't mean it's healthy. Look behind the claims, as it could also be very high in saturated fat, sugar and kilojoules.
  • What's in a tick? Ticks followed by nutritional claims such as 'high in fibre' and 'source of calcium for strong bones' imply that the product is endorsed as a healthy product but this is not the case.
  • Implied content –  often the images or naming of products suggest that they are healthy or full of fruit or vegetables when, in fact, they're not. For example, there is nothing to stop a cereal bar using a marketing strap-line like 'Packed full of strawberry goodness' when it only contains 3% strawberries and is very high in sugar.
  • Don't be fooled by celebrity endorsement. Sports stars are a particularly popular choice when it comes to choosing a face for the product. Research shows sports celebrity endorsement can make parents think products are healthier.
  • Check what the first ingredient is on the ingredients list, as this is always the main ingredient.

We would like to see simpler food labelling to make it easy for people to make healthier food choices when they're shopping. The Obesity Policy Coalition, of which Cancer Council Victoria is a member, is currently advocating for traffic light labelling to be introduced. Find out more at www.opc.org.au.

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