How to read a food label

SINGAPORE - Looking for healthier bread or cheese at the supermarket, but at a loss as to where to start? You can get some clues from food labels, said Ms Lynette Goh, a senior dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

A food label tells the consumer what ingredients go into making the product and the nutrients it contains, she said.

This makes it easy for consumers to compare one food product with another, said Ms Wong Siew Li, a senior dietitian at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The food product with the lower amount of fat, sugar and salt, for instance, is the healthier choice, she said.

Conversely, consumers can use food labels to look for food products higher in vitamins, fibre and certain minerals such as calcium and iron, she said.

Food labels here are regulated by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

It is important that consumers know how to understand claims such as "low fat", "cholesterol-free", or "no sugar added", said Ms Wong.

She said: "Even if a food is low in fat, it may be high in carbohydrates or sugar."

A product can be high in saturated fat even if it is cholesterol-free while a product that has "no sugar added" may still contain a lot of natural sugar and may not be necessarily low in sugar or calories.


Decoding nutrition information

CALORIE CLAIMS

Calorie or energy-free: The product contains 5 kilocalories (kcal) or less per serving.

Low calorie: The product contains less than 40kcal per serving or for drinks, less than 8kcal per 100ml.

Tip: The daily calorie intake for an average adult man is 2,000 to 2,200kcal, while that of an average adult woman is about 1,800 to 2,000kcal.

Carbohydrates should make up about 50 per cent of the daily calorie intake, proteins about 20 per cent and fat not more than 30 per cent.

FAT CLAIMS

Fat-free: The product contains less than 0.15g fat per 100g or 100ml.

Low-fat: The product has 3g or less of total fat per 100g or 1.5g or less of fat per 100ml.

Lower or reduced fat: The product has least 25 per cent less fat than the regular product, but it does not mean low in fat.

Light or lite: This usually means the product is lightly salted or light in taste or colour. It does not mean it is low in fat or calories.

Tip: Go for fat-free or low-fat products if you are watching your weight.

Fat should make up no more than 30 per cent of a person's total calories. And saturated fat, which raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad cholesterol that is a risk factor for heart disease, should not form more than 10 per cent of this.

This is about 12 teaspoons a day for an average female who needs about 1,800kcal a day. For instance, a bowl of char kuay teow contains 7.5 teaspoons of saturated fat.

Limit trans fat to less than 1 per cent of total calories. This should be about 2g based on a typical 2,000kcal diet. Another name for trans fat is hydrogenated vegetable oil.

The remaining fat should come from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat such as unsalted nuts and seeds, fish (especially oily fish, such as salmon, trout and herring, at least twice per week) and vegetable oil such as olive, sunflower, soya bean, corn and peanut oil.

CHOLESTEROL CLAIMS

Cholesterol-free: To be cholesterol-free, a product has to contain less than 5mg of cholesterol per 100g. But note that cholesterol-free does not mean fat-free. A product can still be high in saturated fat even if it is cholesterol-free.

Also, cholesterol comes only from animal products. Hence, stating that plant-derived food products are cholesterol-free is just stating the obvious.

Reduced cholesterol: This means the product contains at least 25 per cent less cholesterol than the regular product, but it does not mean low in cholesterol.

Tip: Most adults should limit their cholesterol intake to less than 300mg per day. Food high in cholesterol include organ meat (such as liver, kidney and brain), egg yolks and shellfish. Moderate your intake of organ meat and shellfish, and have no more than four egg yolks per week.

FIBRE CLAIMS

High fibre: The product has 6g of fibre or more per 100g, or 4g of fibre or more per serving.

Tip: The recommended fibre intake is 20 to 35g a day. Studies show a diet rich in dietary fibre can benefit health in many ways. It aids in lowering of blood cholesterol, may decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes and prevent some types of cancer, especially cancer of the colon. Fibre from whole grains also adds bulk to the diet. This helps to maintain regular bowel movements and promotes a feeling of fullness, which aids in weight management.


SALT CLAIMS

Low salt or sodium: The product has 120mg or 0.12g or less of sodium per 100g.

Reduced salt or sodium: At least 25 per cent less sodium than the regular product, but it does not mean low in salt or sodium.

Tip: Go for a low-salt or low-sodium product.

The recommended salt intake is 5g a day, which is about a teaspoon. Studies show that the average salt intake of an adult Singaporean tends to hover around 8g a day.

Taking too much salt could raise the blood pressure. The higher your blood pressure, the greater the strain on your blood vessels and your risk of having problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

Salt can also be listed as sodium chloride, rock salt, sea salt and vegetable salt. It can also be found in food additives such as MSG and baking powder.

SUGAR CLAIMS

No added sugar or unsweetened: This means no sugar from any source has been added. It may still contain a lot of natural sugar and does not mean low in sugar or calories.

Sugar-free: The product contains 0.5g of sugar or less per 100g.

Less or reduced sugar: The product contains at least 25 per cent less sugar than the regular product, but it does not mean low in sugar.

Tip: When it comes to sugar, the advice is to eat as little as possible because sugar provides "empty" calories - calories with no nutritional value.

Be wary of products that list sugar among the first four of their ingredients in the ingredient list.

High-sugar products may also be high in fat. Choose food with the labels: no added sugar, sugar-free, unsweetened or less or reduced sugar.

If you are watching your calories, choose food with artificial sweeteners, which give you the sweet taste without the calories.

Other names for sugar include sucrose, white or refined sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.


CALCIUM CLAIMS

High calcium: The product has to contain at least 50 per cent of an average adult's daily recommended calcium intake.

Tip: The recommended daily calcium intake for an adult is 800mg a day. A glass of milk contains about 350 to 600mg of calcium.

Source: Ms Lynette Goh, a senior dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

Tips on what to look out for on food labels

Mind Your Body tails Ms Lynette Goh, a senior dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, as she tours a supermarket and shares tips on what to look out for on food labels.

DAIRY AND CALCIUM-FORTIFIED PRODUCTS

Milk, milk products and calcium-fortified soya products are good sources of calcium.

Calcium is important for maintaining bone health and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Cheese: Cheese is a good source of calcium but it tends to be high in saturated fat and sodium.

Saturated fat raises the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol - the "bad" cholesterol that is a risk factor for heart disease.

A high sodium intake can raise blood pressure. The higher the blood pressure, the greater the strain on the blood vessels and the risk of having problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

Choose cheese that is labelled "reduced fat" and contains less sodium than other types of cheese.

Milk, yogurt and soya products: Dairy products are good sources of calcium, but full-cream dairy products tend to be high in saturated fat.

Choose skim or low-fat milk or yogurt.

For soya products, choose those that are fortified with calcium.

Choose soya milk that comes with no sugar added or with reduced sugar, that is, at least 25 per cent less sugar compared with the regular product.

SPREAD

Margarine: This is generally considered better for the heart than butter, as it is made from vegetable oil.

But it will contain trans fat if it is made from hydrogenated vegetable oil. Trans fat is worse than saturated fat because it not only raises the level of "bad" cholesterol but also lowers that of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This "good" cholesterol helps control the levels of "bad" cholesterol and is good for the heart.

Look for margarine that is trans fat free (the label may sometimes state so) and is lower in salt.

There are some types of spread that contain palm oil, which is sometimes used in place of hydrogenated oil now. It is best to avoid palm oil as it contains both saturated fat and trans fat.

If you have high cholesterol, check with your doctor about using spread that is fortified with plant stanols and sterols, such as flora pro-activ and Logicol. These are naturally occurring substances found in plants which may help reduce "bad" cholesterol levels.

Butter: Butter is made from animal fat. Hence, it contains high levels of saturated fat.

Choose peanut butter or other types of spread made from nut or seed butter, such as almond butter or tahini, that are higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat raises the level of "good" cholesterol.

However, as fat is still fat, no matter how good it is, use these types of spread sparingly.

BREAD

Bread is a good source of carbohydrates, which fuel a person's daily activities. But some types of bread may be high in calories, fat and sugar.

Choose bread that is higher in whole grains, which are packed with more vitamins, minerals and fibre than refined grains.

Look for bread with the word "whole" before the name of the grain or words such as wholemeal, wholegrain and wholewheat on the ingredient list.

BISCUITS

Choose wholemeal biscuits and crackers as they are higher in whole grains and fibre.

Those who are watching their salt intake should compare products through their nutrition information panels to find something that has lower sodium.

If you are buying cream or sweet biscuits, compare between the products and choose those with a lower fat content.

Remember that most baked products contain some amount of saturated and trans fat. Eat them in moderation.

CEREALS

Wholegrain breakfast cereals provide a good start to a new day.

Avoid refined grains, which have had their outer layers removed, robbing them of much of their goodness.

Choose cereals that are lower in sugar and fat and higher in whole grains and fibre. Try to choose products where whole grain is listed first on the ingredient list. These will carry a healthier choice label.

Avoid three-in-one cereals as they tend to be high in saturated fat and sugar.

HEALTHIER CHOICE SYMBOL

Look out for the Healthier Choice Symbol on the packages of products such as milk, spread, bread, biscuits, cereals and even fishballs.

Products bearing this logo will have less fat, saturated fat and sodium and more dietary fibre and calcium. However, every type of food contains calories, so do not overeat.

leawee@sph.com.sg


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