Trying to serve up a healthy, balanced diet for your family can be a challenge, particularly if you're short of time. Packaged foods are great when it comes to convenience - but how do they fit into a healthy diet?
The answer is that you need to do a little research in the supermarket before you buy. Fortunately, as required by law, most of the information you need should be right there on the pack.
Check out the Nutritional Information Panel
The Nutrition Information Panel contains a wealth of information - if you know what to look for.
Take a moment to check out:
• The energy content in kilojoules. This will be presented per serve and per 100 grams of the food. It's important to remember that what constitutes a serve is up to the manufacturer so a tub of yoghurt might be one serve or it might be one-and-half serves - you really need to check. Looking at the energy per 100 grams is a good way to compare different products because it tells you how much energy you'll get if you eat the same amount.
• The amount of other nutrients including protein, total and saturated fats, carbohydrates and sugars and sodium (salt). There may also be other items such as fibre or levels of a particular vitamin or mineral.
• You may also see something called % DI (Daily Intake) per serve, either in the nutrition information panel or on little boxes with round tops on the front of the packaging. This calculates how much of your daily intake of energy, fat, sugar, etc you're going to get from eating a serve of the product. You should remember that these percentages are calculated on the recommended daily intake for an adult (for energy that's around 8,700 kj a day) and it may not apply to children.
How do the numbers stack up?
So if you're looking to eat healthy, what should you be looking for on the Nutrition Panel?
• Try to choose products with less fat and, in particular, less saturated fats. Not only are fats high in energy, high intake of saturated fats have been linked with increased risk of heart disease.
• Try to choose products with moderate carbohydrates and, in particular, moderate amounts of sugar. These can be high in energy, so keeping both fats and sugar as a moderate part of your diet helps to keep your energy intake under control. Don't be fooled that products that say they are "low fat" or "low carb" are always low in energy - you need to check out the Nutritional Panel to make sure.
• Make sure you keep an eye on the sodium (or salt) content of products. While you can see how much salt you add to your own food, it's easy to forget that it's often been added in packaged foods. Most Australians eat more salt than recommended (a maximum of 2,300 mg a day for adults) and this is a problem because it can increase blood pressure and lead to heart disease and other problems. Where you can, try to choose products lower in salt.
Don't forget to go fresh
Many fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables don't have to be labelled, but that doesn't mean you should forget them because fresh foods are a vital part of a healthy diet.
By concentrating on getting your five vegies and two fruit a day and choosing healthier packaged foods, you'll be well on the way to a healthier, tastier diet.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Food labelling fact sheets. http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/scienceandeducation/factsheets/labellingfactsheets/ Retrieved 30/04/10.
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