Hot Nutrition Topics - Nutrition Labels

Reading nutrition labels for better health
Candy S.M. Wong, Accredited Practising Dietitian (Australia)

When shopping for groceries, have you noticed that most food products now carry an “identity card”? The new Hong Kong Nutrition Labelling Scheme has come into force in 1st July 2010. Most pre-packaged foods must carry a nutrition label, which shows you the energy and nutrient content of the foods. “ 1 + 7” nutrients must be listed which include energy (Kilocalories or Kilojoules), protein, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, sugar and sodium. In addition, nutrition claims such as “low fat” or “no sugars” on pre-packaged foods are also regulated.

While the rates of obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are on the rise, the evidence of healthy eating plays a fundamental role in chronic disease prevention is more convincing and stronger than ever. Therefore, by knowing how to read nutrition labels, you can make healthier food choices that further contribute to a healthy eating.

Comparing nutrition labels to choose healthier products
Some people find it hard to get useful information out of nutrition labels. In fact it is not that hard once you master the skills. One of the easiest ways of using nutrition labels to make healthier choice is to compare two products of the same type. Here we use two biscuit products as an example.

Biscuit A                                                                      Biscuit B

For a direct and accurate comparison, we have to make sure that the information on the labels are expressed in the same quantities, such as per 100g, per 100ml or per same serving size. If the information is shown in different quantities, then we will have to do some prior calculations to make them comparable.

Which biscuit is a healthier option – biscuit A or biscuit B?

As the information on both nutrition labels are expressed in “per 100g”, we can make a direct comparison between them. From weight management and chronic disease prevention point of view, biscuit A (plain saltine crackers) is a healthier choice than biscuit B (chocolate sandwich biscuits). In the same quantity (100g), biscuit A contains less energy (calories), fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium than biscuit B. This means biscuit A is a reasonably healthier choice, and could be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet. But does that mean biscuit B is “forbidden” from a healthy diet? Not necessarily. As long as you eat the biscuit B in small amount very occasionally, it shouldn’t impose a great impact on the health of a healthy individual. Of course this varies in individuals – if you have any questions or concerns, you are recommended to seek professional advice from a registered dietitian.

The intake of energy (calories) and nutrients could have a far-reaching impact on our health. Consuming too much energy (calories), fat and sugars could result in overweight, which is linked to a range of chronic diseases, as shown by a large body of scientific evidence. Excessive intakes of saturated fat and trans fat could cause increase in blood cholesterol level, which could raise the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases. Having too much sodium (which is a chemical component of salt) might lead to high blood pressure. Therefore, when going grocery shopping, you are recommended to compare nutrition labels, and choose food products that contain less energy (calories), total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugars and sodium.

Beware of “nutrition claims” traps
Under the new Nutrition Labelling Scheme, nutrition claims such as “low fat” or “no sugars” on pre-packaged foods are also regulated.

Nutrition claims may seem an easy way to help you decide what to buy, but make sure you find out what the claims don’t mention. For example, a “low fat” food could be high in sugar or salt. Also, not all of these claims are regulated. For example, a “less sweet” (a claim currently not regulated by law) drink could be still quite high in sugars.

Ingredients lists – another good source of information
Apart from looking at the nutrition labels and nutrition claims, you can also get helpful information out of ingredient lists.

The ingredients are listed in descending order (highest to lowest) by weight. So if fat (e.g. oil, butter, vegetables fat, shortening etc), sugar (including sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, fructose etc), or salt is listed as the first few ingredients, that means it is one of the major ingredients in the product, and the product probably is not a healthy choice.

Where to get more useful information on nutrition labels?
The Centre for Food Safety and some non-government organisations have produced free educational resources on nutrition labels, including booklets, leaflets and shopping cards. For more information, please go to:

Nutrition labelling scheme website:
www.nutritionlabel.gov.hk

Nutrition label widget:
www.cfs.gov.hk/english/programme/programme_nifl/nl_widget.html

WCRF HK’s Understanding Nutrition Labels leaflet:
https://www.wcrf-hk.org/sites/default/files/UnderstandingNutritionLabels.pdf


Being one of the most trusted source of health information, dietitian could give you individualised advice on how to use nutrition labels. To find a dietitian in your area, please go to
www.hkda.com.hk/index.php?_a=viewDoc&docId=19

 

For organisations which would like to invite a HKDA accredited dietitian to give a health talk on nutrition labels, please go to www.hkda.com.hk/index.php?_a=viewDoc&docId=10

 

HKDA accredited dietitians have been invited by various media to interviews on nutrition labels. Please go to “Dietitian on Media” at www.hkda.com.hk/index.php?_a=viewDoc&docId=37 for more information