Ever wondered what all that nutrition gibberish means on the flip side of pre-packaged foods at the supermarket? We break it down for you so you're in the know the next time you hit the shops...
The shopping cart could be your best friend or worst enemy. And when you are a parent scrambling for time, you tend to choose convenience products over healthy ones while at the supermarket. This means pre-packaged foods sometimes land up in our shopping carts, and we’re not really clued up on their nutritional value (or how to find it out). It doesn’t help that there’s so much information on food packaging to start with. Where do you begin?
Well, the good news is that we’re here to help you understand those food labels and turn you to grocery-savvy in a jiffy. And we’ve called in the expert with fitness coach and mum to two tiny kiddos, Amanda Lim, to give us her top tips for the next time you hit the shops!
A step-by-step guide on how to read food labels like a pro
First things first – before we break down the information on food labels, mums and dads must understand what their little ones need. This initial step helps to gauge the quality and quantity of nutrients required against a growth chart. We are talking about ruling out allergens too. Health Hub, a national population enablement platform for digital health, has created a Parent Hub portal for Singapore parents to keep a tab on everything your tiny folks need. Best part? It’s by age group!
To keep things simple, Amanda Lim shares, “If you’re concerned about your child’s intake, a general rule of thumb is that an infant needs 100cal/kg/day, ages 1 to 3 years need 80 kcal/kg/day, 4 to 5 years needs 70kcal/kg/day, 6 to 8 years needs 60 to 65 kcal/kg/day, and 9+ needs 35 to 45 kcal/kg/day (reference here). Use growth charts to guide nutritional decisions, and always consult with your child’s paediatrician or health professional before making any dietary interventions.”
What’s the nutrition gibberish about?
The information available on packaged foods can be read in approximately ten smaller parts. The name of the food, Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), the statement of ingredients, net quantity, date marking (like ‘expiry date’ or ‘best before’), warnings (for allergens), nutritional claim (like low fat), usage instructions, and manufacturer details. That’s a lot of info!
What do mums and dads need to keep an eye on?
a. The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
The nutrition information panel is on the flip side of the packaging and looks like a tabulated chart. It includes a whole host of details like the energy value of the food, amount of protein, carbohydrate fat and amounts of any other nutrients mentioned in nutrition or health mentioned on the products. That’s a lot of info in one place. So what do you do with this information dump? The panel allows you to compare nutrition levels between products to make a more informed choice at purchase.
b. How to compare NIP between products
No one has the time to go through each NIP with a magnifying glass, word for word. Nope! To make it simple, read the nutrient column measured per 100g/ml stated in the chart to compare similar products. The nutrient content appears as per 100g of food, per 100 ml of liquid, or per serving size. This helps to compare products more accurately for their nutritional content using a standard unit of measurement.
c. The statement of ingredients
Did you know the order of ingredients listed in the statement also has meaning? According to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), all the ingredients listed on a food product are in descending order of weight. This means the first in the list is the largest in amount and weight. And the last ingredient listed is in the smallest quantity in the food and usually includes additives that help preserve and enhance the appearance, colour and taste of the food.
d. Serving size
The serving size stated by the manufacturer is important to read to understand the nutrient value one gets from the product with each serving. But here’s the catch! The serving size indicated on a food label by food manufacturers can vary between products, even if of the same category. The serving size can be lower in quantity than what your littlie consumes – so you might need your calculator at the ready!
Smart tips to skim through the shelves in a jiffy
a. Ingredients to keep at bay
There may be a ton of ingredients on that statement of ingredients, but there are few contributors to childhood obesity. Amanda shares, “The three most important things to look for are easily understood across all nutrition labels: calories per serving, added sugar, and saturated/trans fat content. The higher the calories per serving, the more added sugar, and the higher the saturated/trans fat content of the food, the less likely it is to be a nutritious choice for your family.”
“Trans fats are a bit tricky to identify and manage as they tend to come in foods without labels, like deep-fried foods, commercial baked goods, and processed spreads, but make sure to check the label of your household brand of frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, cake frosting, potato chips/crisps and packaged cookies to make sure trans fats aren’t present in them”, she adds.
b. Quick nutrient Comparisons
The quick trick to comparing food products lies in focusing only on key nutrients in the fine print. Go with a like-for-like approach for proper comparisons – like similar products, nutrients, and portions. According to Health Hub, focusing on a few nutrients can help you get a bang for your buck – like the amount of wholegrain, product energy values, fat and serving size to lose weight; calorie, carbohydrate and fibre values to keep a tab on blood sugar; compare sodium values to keep blood pressure in check; and calcium levels for bone health.
c. Food labels can be misleading
If you think a biscuit packet has no sugar and no salt because you can’t spot the words in the ingredients list, look closer! Sugar can appear as maltose or fructose, while salt as sodium chloride. Health Hub states a food product may even mention it has no added sugar, which does not mean it is entirely sugar-free, like in fruit juices. Amanda Lim shares, “A lot of families have started to make the transition to wholemeal bread, which is generally a good idea due to the higher dietary fibre content – but you’d want to check your label to make sure your choice of wholemeal bread actually has more fibre (and not more added sugar, which sometimes happens in supermarket bread).”
d. The name on a product speaks volumes
The name of a pre-packaged food product can say a lot too when it comes to making more informed choices for your kids. Amanda Lim says, “An easy comparison might be with boxed breakfast cereals – a honey-flavoured variety of popular O-shaped cereal versus the plain version. The honey-flavoured cereal is 105 calories, with 9g of added sugar, whereas the plain version has 100 calories and only 1g of sugar. My general guiding principle for health-minded parents is to look for snacks and cereals that contain fewer than 5g added sugar per serving (and the lesser, the better!).” This simple technique can be applied to choosing between flavoured and unflavoured milk, plain and sweetened yoghurt and the like.
“An easy tip we use in our household is to offer only water or plain milk as beverages; juices, sodas, vitamin yoghurt drinks, powdered packet drinks, and flavoured milk are reserved for treats outside the home and had sparingly,” she adds.
Choosing the right foods, Calorie-dense foods vs nutritional value for kids
Did you know that certain calorie-dense foods are great for your kids. Yep, you heard right! Amanda Lim shares, “Foods that are very calorie-dense should be approached with intention, considering not only the calories in the food but also the nutritional value it provides.”
“For example, a tablespoon of natural peanut butter has 119 kCal, 1.3g saturated fat, 1.2g naturally occurring sugars, and 5.3g protein. A tablespoon of chocolate hazelnut spread has 108kCal, but 2.2g saturated fat, 10.3g added sugars (11.4g sugar total), and only 1.1g protein. Comparing these two foods side by side, though their calories are very similar, the natural peanut butter (look for brands where the only ingredient is “peanuts,” or at maximum, “peanuts and salt” – no sugar!) provides a nutritionally-dense option while the chocolate hazelnut spread contains more than twice the sugar per serving a child should be having, nearly double the saturated fat, and only about 20% of the healthy, satisfying protein of natural peanut butter”, says Amanda.
Don’t have the time to look through labels? Fret not!
This pointer is definitely for the uninitiated. The Health Promotion Board of Singapore has made it easier for Singapore residents to choose healthier pre-packaged foods. All you need to do is search for the Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) logo on pre-packaged foods available at supermarkets. We are talking across 4000 food products across 100 food categories like breakfast cereals, sauces and beverages. These healthier foods are scanned for sugar content, sodium, calcium, saturated fat, wholegrain and other verticals for each food category. Best part? The Healthier Choice Symbol Nutrient Guidelines even suggests what taglines a food manufacturer can print on packaging. Like ‘sugar-free’, ‘higher in wholegrains’ etc.
Expert advice for planning your pantry
Amanda shares, “Whole food breakfasts that combine protein, carbs, and fat, like eggs on wholemeal toast or plain whole-milk yoghurt with fruit, will keep children fuller longer and give them sustained energy without the sugar crash of cereals or sweetened buns/breads/drinks.”
“When healthy food and “kid” food aren’t made a big distinction in your home, most kids will naturally eat a bigger variety of foods and make choices for themselves that might surprise you!” she concludes.
Thanks, Amanda, for sharing these useful insights on nutrition. If you have a few tips and tricks up your sleeve, we would love to hear them! Drop us a DM.