Food labels – how athletes can make sense of the fine print

Posted on October 19, 2017 by

Understanding what is in the food you are eating is important to know what energy will be going into your training. When making food choices in the supermarket each food product with multiple ingredients is required to have a nutrition information panel and an ingredients list on the packet.

This can be used to compare two similar products, or to understand what is in the food you are eating and to get an indication of what energy and amount of protein carbs and fats you will need for your training requirements.


What do you look for when reading labels?

Different foods will produce very different nutrition labels, so naturally they will not all be the same and you will have to look at different areas specific to the food type you are looking at. There is no perfect food product or ‘right or wrong’ nutrition label.

You may be looking for a good carb choice to have before training which is low in fat and high in carbs, and this is a way to inform that choice. Some product labels may give information for additional nutrients which can be taken into considerations when assessing a new product.

When reading a nutrition information panel here are a few areas to consider which generally indicates a healthier product, nutrition information panels have to include the following information and look like the below. We’ve added some notes in red:


Nutrition Information

SERVE SIZE – 84g (2 slices)

If considering the energy per serve, check how many serves per product as it may be smaller than you think and lead to over consumption.

Essential criteria Per serve (84g) Per 100g
Energy 991kJ (236cal) 1180g
Aim for less than 1800kJ per 100g. If higher than this, keep portions small.
Protein 9.2g 11.0g
Aim for less than 10g per 100g, excluding nuts and good fat foods.
Fat, total 4.4g 5.2g
–  saturated fat 0.5g 0.6g
Aim for less than 5g per 100g
Carbohydrates 37.6g 44.8g
–  sugars
For cereal, bars, crackers and bread products aim for sugar to be <1/2, ideally <1/3 of the total carbohydrates.
2.4g 2.8g
Sodium 361mg 430mg
Non-essential criteria
Fibre 4g
Important to consider when choosing carbs that there is 2-3g+ fibre per serve. Or a lower amount of fibre around training


Per 100g

Best used for comparing products of a similar nature to determine the better product to choose. Ie cereal or sauces

The fat per 100g on the label above is 5.2g – you may not consume 100g but if you compare it to a product that has 10.9g fat/100g than this product is going to be a better choice because its lowER in fat.


Per Serve

Best used to get an idea of what you will be consuming in each serve rather than as a comparison with other products as they may have quite different serving sizes ie tub of yoghurt or muesli bar. When comparing the serve size its important to check how many serves are in the product to know how much you are eating, you may eat the whole thing but it serves five.

The serve size on the label above is two slices – if you have four slices you will be getting more than just 991kJ even if you have it ‘at one serve’


Ingredient list

Ingredients are listed in descending order from most amount to least amount in the product. All ingredients included have to be listed; with detail including the ingredients of ingredients or the percentage of specific key ingredients. If undesirable products are within the first three ingredients or the remaining ingredients you can’t pronounce, aren’t real food or are numbers, try to avoid that product.

The ingredient list is sometimes more useful to understand what is in the food than the nutrition information panel.


Nutrition claims for fat and sugar

There is a lot of confusion about different terms used to describe the fat content, at a glance this is what they mean.

  • Light or Lite – this generally refers to the fat content of products, for it to carry this term it must have less than 3g of fat per 100g of food or drink. In the special case of olive oil, light refers to the colour not the fat content. Currently there are no guidelines enforced like this for sugar amounts.
  • Reduced… – this means there is less of an ingredient than the original product, this is generally less fat, sugar or sodium, it may not always mean that it has a small amount, just less than the original.
  • Diet – most diet products are low kJ, have low fat and reduced sugar or sugar replaced is with an artificial sweetener.


Receive nutrition information from NSWIS

Sign up to the weekly eNewsletter from the NSW Institute of Sport, which includes the latest nutrition blog from the NSWIS dietitian. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

No Comments

Leave a Reply