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Reading Nutrition Labels

To help you understand all that complicated lingo on the back of food packaging, the team here at Exact Physiology have put together this easy to understand information so that you can learn to read food labels.

This will allow you to make more healthier and informed choices about what you are consuming throughout the day. If you suffer from a chronic illness such as diabetes, this is a very handy skill to have!

Kilojoules vs. Calories

Often food packages list foods in kilojoules or calories, where 1 Cal (calorie) = 4.2kJ (kilojoules). For example, if a muesli bar is listed as containing 110 cal, this equals around 462 kJ. Calories used to be used more commonly as it is an imperial measurement, however, kilojoules is a metric measurement and is more common now. Try to use whichever makes more sense to you!

What details are included on a food label?

On the back of food packaging, you will see a food label. The food label includes the following components:

  • Serving Size
  • Number of Serves per package
  • Nutrients within the listed serving size and per 100g:
    • Energy (kilojoules/calories)
    • Protein
    • Total fat and Saturated fat
    • Total Carbohydrate and Sugars
    • Sodium (Salt)
    • Fibre (may not always be present)
  • Warning about the presence of food allergens e.g. nuts, gluten, milk etc.

Nutrition Claims and Meanings

On many food packages the manufacturer will inlcude various nutrition claims. These are regulated by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand to make sure all products are correct. Common nutrition claims and their meanings have been listed below:

Nutrition ClaimMeaning
Low FatThe product contains less than 3g of fat per 100g
DietThe product has been artificially sweetened
Reduced Fat / SaltThe product contains at least 25% less fat or salt compared to the regular product
Light or LiteOften used to describe the product’s texture, colour or flavour. The product does not necessarily contain less fat or sugar
No Added SugarThe product has had NO sugar added to it during productionThe product could still be high in naturally occurring sugars (eg. dried fruit or fruit juice)
All NaturalIndicates that the product contains no artifical colours, flavours or preservatives. The product may still be high in fat, sugar and/or salt

How many kilojoules should I be eating?

Generally, the average adult’s daily requirement is 8700kJ. However, this varies depending on gender, age, activity levels, and pregnancy. Try this daily energy needs calculator – it’s super easy to use!

What is %RDI?

RDI stands for ‘Recommended Daily Intake’. As per the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), RDI is the level of intake of essential nutrients recommended for consumption to be adequate to meet the known nutritional requirements of healthy individuals.

The RDI has been created based on scientific evidence. For example, if the energy content of a given food is 870 kJ, this represents 10% of your recommended daily intake of 8700kJ. The remaining 90% can come from other foods and fluid you consume throughout the day.

What is a Glycemic Index

This refers to the speed at which carbohydrates are broken down in the body and release glucose into the bloodstream during digestion.

Low GI

Low GI foods are carbohydrates include some fruit and vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods. In summary, Low GI Foods are carbohydrates breakdown slowly which means that they release glucose at a steady rate keeping blood sugar levels stable (keeping you fuller for longer).

High GI

These are foods that breakdown quickly which means they will create a sudden spike in your blood sugar levels.

High GI foods will not keep you feeling full as long as lower GI options. Try to limit your consumption of high GI foods such as most white rice and white bread.

Any carbohydrates that are released too quickly into the blood and not used for energy are more than likely to be taken and stored as fat… Not what we want!

LowGI = <55

Medium GI = 56-69

High GI = 70+

Reading the nutrition labels

Take note of how many grams of Fat, Carbohydrate, Fibre and Protein are in the product. The quantity per 100g column is best when comparing similar products due to variances in serving sizes.

Energy SourceKilojoules (kJ)
1g Fat37
1g Carbohydrate17
1g Protein17
1g Alcohol29
1g Dietary fibre8

The manufacturer will always list:

  1. Amount of nutrients per 100g of the product
  2. Amount of nutrients in an average serve of the product
  • Bare in mind that serving sizes vary from product to product, so look at how much of a serve is listed on the panel and check if this is how much of the food you’d normally eat

When comparing 2 different products it is easiest to refer to the “per 100g” column.

Amanda Percy, Director of Exact Physiology


these are listed in descending order by weight so make sure sugar is not in the first 3-4 ingredients listed.

The manufacturer may try to disguise fat, salt and sugar in the ingredient listing by using other names, watch out for the following:

  • Fats = vegetable oil, animal fat, lard, coconut oil, whole milk solids, copha, butter, cream, coconut, hydrogenated oils, margarine, palm oil, dripping, sour cream, beef fat
  • Sugar = anything ending is “ose” – sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose. Other words include: golden syrup, honey, malt, molasses, brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, mannitol, raw sugar
  • Salt = rock salt, vegetable salt, baking soda, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, MSG and yeast extract, mineral salts, celery/garlic salt, glutamate, stock

It is important to get the right balance of each of the macronutrients in your diet . Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats and protein. Are you aware of how much you need of each?

Note: these will change depending on your individual needs, gender and age. However as a general guide the following recommendations are for an average adult.

NutrientDaily RequirementRequirement as % of RDIFunction
EnergyMales = ~10 450kJ
Females = ~8 360kJ
Protein~50g15-20%Protein is used to build and repair muscle, blood, organs, nerves, skin, hair and the brain
Fat~70g<30%Fat absorbs and transports fat soluble vitamins around your body. Excessive fat increases the risk of heart   disease, breast/ colon/ and prostate cancer
Carbohydrate~310g50-60%Provides energy for cellular processes such as breathing and heart pumping as well as for activities and   exercise
Sugars<90g<25%Excessive sugar intake can suppress the immune system making you more vulnerable to toxins, bacteria and   viruses
Sodium1200-2300mgToo much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, which leads to increased risk of heart disease,   kidney disease and stroke
Fibre25-30gReduces the risk of colon   cancer and prevents intestinal problems and infection
Saturated Fat<24g Included in your 70g   fat NOT in addition toExcessive consumption   increases risk of cardiovascular disease
CholesterolAs low as possibleRequired for the production of   vitamin D, absorption of fat from intestines and production of important hormones.   Excessive intake reduces cardiovascular health
Transfatty acidsAs low as possible (2g max   daily)Associations with heart   disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions

In Conclusion

The information above is to be used a guide only and figures are representative of a healthy individual.

If you have medical conditions which may require specific information please speak with your GP or make an appointment with our wonderful Dietitian.

Source: Nutrition Education Materials Online (NEMO) – Reading Food Labels