What is the first thing a dietitian looks for on a label?

Most of us know we should be looking at the nutritional label of our foods. But what exactly should we be looking for? Our resident dietitian Melissa Meier breaks down the good, the bad, and the confusing. 

Do you find shopping for healthy food confusing? You’re not alone. As a dietitian, I’m constantly asked for the healthiest brand of anything from bread and yoghurt to cereal and even chocolate bars!

The good news, however, is that choosing healthy food is really not that complicated. There’s one particular thing I place a lot of emphasis on when it comes to packaged food – and I think you should too. Get it right, and the world is your oyster… or at least a kitchen stocked full of food that’s truly good for you.

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The ingredients list

The ingredients list is the Holy Grail when it comes to deciphering whether a product is healthy or not. It’s always the very first thing I check when contemplating if I put something in my trolley, and I’d encourage you to do the same.

You’re looking for an ingredients list made up of whole foods, with as few extras as possible. As a rule of thumb: the shorter the ingredients list, the better. If you’re looking in the cereal aisle, for instance, a product made up of only rolled oats, nuts and seeds would be a good option. But if it had a stack of numbers, additives and words you don’t recognise, I’d say put it back on the shelf, stat.

Cracking the code

The order of ingredients on the ingredients list is another important thing to consider. That’s because ingredients are listed in order of weight, so whatever is at the start of the list contributes far more to the product than whatever is at the end.

If sugar, salt or fat is one of the first few ingredients, for example, chances are the product isn’t very good for you. If it’s at the end, however, it mightn’t be so bad. You might be surprised to learn that added sugar, salt and saturated fat have many different guises – so you need to keep your eye out for a host of different names. Salt, for example, isn’t just listed as ‘salt’ all the time.

It could be listed as baking powder, yeast extract or sodium ascorbate. Similarly, added sugar can be referred to as honey, golden syrup, dextrose or fructose, and saturated fat might come in the form of butter, milk solids, ghee or lard.

Other things to consider

I’d bet my bottom dollar that nine times out of 10, if a product passes the ingredients list test, it deserves a place in your shopping trolley. If you want a little extra assurance in your choice, however, the nutrition information panel is your next port of call to analyse the sugar, salt and saturated fat content.

You’re looking for less than 120mg of sodium per 100 grams. In some cases, this can be a little tricky to find, so it’s okay to bump your threshold up to 400 milligrams per 100 grams if necessary.

Sugar unfortunately isn’t broken down into added vs. natural, so if there’s more than 15g total per 100 grams, it’s important to refer back to the ingredients list to decipher what the sugar is coming from. When it comes to saturated fat, as low as possible is your best bet. Look for less than 3g per 100 grams.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practicing dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.