Understanding Food Labels


We all know we need to eat healthy well balanced meals and the food packed onto supermarket shelves promises us they are ‘healthy’, ‘low fat’, ‘lite’ or ‘cholesterol free’. However, it’s important for us to look past the promises, and look more closely at the nutritional information and ingredients to be sure we understand what is actually in our food and allow for more informed choices.

What must be on a label?

There are regulations set by the New Zealand Ministry of Health outlining what must be listed. Ingredient lists are compulsory on any manufactured foods.  The ingredients must be listed in decreasing order of amount. So if sugar, fat or salt are listed near the beginning, it may contain a large quantity of that particular ingredient.

What to watch for?

Some manufacturers like to hide ingredients, so although they must list the item it may be called something else!

  • Sugar also called: raw sugar, palm sugar, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, galatose, dextrose, maltodextrins, lactose, golden syrup, corn syrup, treacle, honey, molasses, malt and malt extract.
  • Fat also called: shortening, copha, lard, polyunsaturated fat, triglycerides, coconut cream, suet, dripping, ghee, vegetable oil (usually palm oil), animal oil, animal fat, vegetable fat, milk solids, tallow, butter and margarine.
  • Salt also called: rock salt, vegetable salt, baking soda, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate and monosodium glutamate.

A few things to remember:

Serving size: At the top of the food label is an amount listing the serving size. These are determined by the food manufacturer (not NZ Health Guidelines) and are based on the amount of food that people generally eat. And remember people are eating a lot more than they used to!

Reduced Fat: A product may have less fat than the regular product, but still may not be a ‘low fat’ item. (eg: Nestle reduced cream).

Low Fat: Low in fat may not be necessarily mean low in calories. Often food manufactures will replace fat with sugar to retain the flavour, therefore it will still be high in kilojoules (calories).

Baked Not Fried: Product may not be low in fat. Pretzels – yes; Crackers – no. (eg: Shapes).

Light or Lite: Sometimes refers to the way the product has been cut. (eg: Lite Crisps). Or the product may be lower in fat or sugar than others but it may not be lower in total kilojoules when compared to a regular product. (eg: Lite Ice Cream is till high in calories)

Cooked in Vegetable Oil: This is quite often Palm Oil a 50% saturated fat commonly used to fry snacks and fast foods.

No Added Sugar: Product may still be high in natural sugars. (eg: Fruit juice)


Try to eat less highly processed and manufactured foods.  If you do buy pre-packaged foods, choose products that have:

  • 10 grams or less of fat per 100 grams
  • 5 grams or less of sugar per 100 grams
  • 120 milligrams or less of sodium per 100 grams
  •  And 6 grams or more of fibre per 100 grams

Ideally you want to choose items with the least ingredients, words that you can pronounce and wholefood items.



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