How to check the Nutrition Panel

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Tuesday, 24 August 2010.
Tagged: additives, fat, food labels, guides, nutrients, nutrition, portion size, salad

How to check the Nutrition Panel

On food labels in Australia and New Zealand, nutrition figures are presented in a standard table format called the Nutrition Information Panel or NIP. This important panel shows the quantities per serve and per 100g of the food or per 100mL if liquid. If you can understand the numbers on it, I find it's an invaluable aid to assessing any food.

 

Let's take a look at a hypothetical bottle of French salad dressing (oil and vinegar) that you'd buy at a supermarket. Turn to the back and you'll spot the standard nutrition information panel that is required on almost all food products. I've re-created a typical one here:

 

French salad dressing
NUTRITION INFORMATION
Servings per pack: 14
Serving size: 1 tbsp (20ml)
 
 

Per serve

20ml tbsp

Per 100ml

 

Energy 430kJ
103 Cal
2140kJ
510 Cal
Protein 0.1 g 0.3 g
Fat, total
      - Saturated
11 g
2 g
55 g
10 g
Carbohydrate, total
     - Sugars
0.1 g
0.1 g
1 g
1 g
Dietary fibre 0 g 0 g
Sodium 40 mg 200 mg

 

Checking the PER SERVE column

The PER SERVE column is handy for seeing how much fat, fibre, sodium or kilojoules/calories IN ONE SERVE of this salad dressing which may influence how much you want to eat of it. 

Start at the top and run your eye down this Per serve column. Here's how I interpret the numbers:

Serve size: All these figures relate to one tablespoon or 20ml of the dressing. See my comments below on realistic serve sizes.

Kilojoules: One 20ml tablespoon of the dressing gives you 430 kilojoules which is equivalent to 103 calories. About the same as from a thick slice of bread.

Protein:  At 0.1 gram per tablespoon, there's virtually no protein.

Fat:  One tablespoon adds a large 11 grams of fat to your daily tally. If you're on a low-fat diet (maximum 40 or 50 grams a day), then 11 grams is one-fifth of your day's intake! You may want to use only a teaspoon or swap to a fat-free dressing. This 11 grams is equivalent to the fat from half a tablespoon of oil (10g).

Saturated fat: The good news is you only get 2 grams of saturated fat, the ‘bad' fat for cholesterol.

Carbohydrate and sugars:  0.1g. Like most dressings, there's almost no carbohydrate or sugars.

Fibre:  There's no fibre.

Sodium:  And there's only small amount of salt (40 mg sodium) which is not always true for this category.

 

Checking the Per 100g column

The PER 100g column helps you to compare different products on a weight-for-weight basis.

Remember that the figures in the Per 100g column are percentages. So the 55 grams of fat you see listed means it's got 55 per cent or 55% fat.

Start at the top and run your eye down this column. Here's how to interpret the numbers:

Kilojoules: 100mls of the dressing gives you 2140 kilojoules which is equivalent to 510 calories.

Protein: At 0.3 per cent, there's hardly any protein.

Fat: Over half of this dressing is made up of fat (55% or 55 per cent) which is around what you'd expect from an oil-vinegar mix. Some dressings can be as high as 80 per cent fat while fat-free dressing have 0 per cent.

Saturated fat: Of the total fat of 55, only 10 grams is made up of the 'bad' saturated fat. This translates to 18 per cent which is low (ideal is anything less than 30 per cent).

Carbohydrate and sugars: Like most dressings, there's little carbohydrate at 1 per cent. All the carbohydrate is present as sugars (also 1 per cent) which would come from a little added cane sugar for flavour. You can check this against the List of Ingredients.

Fibre:  Zero fibre as you'd expect from a dressing. 

Sodium:  Sodium or salt is low at 200 mg sodium which is not always true for this category. Average sodium for dressings is 700 to 900 mg per 100mL. Low-sodium dressings must have less than 120mg per 100g or 100mL.

Should total 100 per cent

Note: as these figures in Per 100mL column are percentages, they should total 100 per cent. But you have to add in the water component which is never given on the NIP but is analysed for. So here the sum of protein 0.3 + fat 55 + carbohydrate 1+ fibre 0 = 56.3 per cent.

Allowing for water at around 40 per cent (really anywhere from 35 to 50 as I don’t know the formulation) which brings the total to 96.3 which is near 100 per cent.

Serve sizes - how standard?

Remember that the serving size is suggested by the manufacturer. There is no official list of how big a serve of dressing or cereal or custard has to be, although that would be a great help if there were so that serves could be standardized across brands.

The manufacturer decides how big or small their serve is and it can vary significantly between brands. For instance, some brands of breakfast cereal set 30g as a single serve, whilst others list 40g or 45g. See the two bowls in the picture. You need to measure out or weigh the portion suggested and see if it's realistic. Ask yourself - would I eat this much of this food?

Cereal serve sizes

Why don't all food products have Nutrition Information Panels?

A NIP is required by law on all foods except for a small list which are exempt which includes:

  • Very small packages and foods like herbs, spices, salt, tea and coffee.
  • Single ingredient foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, water and vinegar
  • Food sold at fundraising events
  • Food sold unpackaged (as long as a nutrition claim is not made)
  • Food made and packaged at the point of sale (like sandwiches or fast food).