What’s really in our food?

How to read and understand food labelling in New Zealand

How often have you stood in a supermarket aisle checking the ingredients list on the food package and wondering what it really means? Which ingredients are good for us and which should we avoid where possible?


Understanding food labels enables us to make informed decisions about what we put in our bodies. For people with food allergies this is critical but for the rest of us, being able to recognise nutritional value is just as important.

Making sense of the nutrition panel on food packaging

Words like ‘low fat’, ‘healthy’, ‘cholesterol free’ or ‘4 or 5 star rating’ are common and often interpreted that the food is going to be good for us. But that’s not always the full picture.


By law, food sold in New Zealand must contain a nutrition information panel (NIP). There are a few exceptions to this rule (aren’t there always?!) Very small packages, foods with no significant nutritional value (tea, coffee, single herb or spice), unpackaged foods (fruit, vegetables and meat), and foods made and packaged where you buy them, for example bread from a bakery, are all exempt. 

An example of a nutrition information panel

nutrition information panel

Basically an NIP must contain the following information: Serving Size; Number of Servings per Package; Energy; Protein; Total Fat; Saturated Fat; Total Carbohydrate; Sugar; Sodium.


There are two columns of numbers, a ‘per-serve’ column and ‘per 100 gms (grams) or mls (millilitres)’ column. All other information on the nutrition panel is optional, however the ingredients must also be listed.


Sometimes a food manufacturer will highlight other ingredients in their product however if the manufacturer makes a claim, for example ‘high calcium’, they must state the quantity of their highlighted ingredient(s).

Food serving sizes and energy – what they actually mean

Serving size and servings per pack

The ‘servings per pack’ information allows you to understand how many people you could feed or how many meals you will get from the food. Good examples of this include a jar of pasta sauce or breakfast cereals.


The serving size tells you how much each person’s serving should be.


Things can become a little confusing when different brands have different serving sizes for the same type of product for example, muesli.

It is always best to use the ‘per 100 gms or mls’ column when comparing two different brands of the same type of product, for example coconut milk in different sized containers. 


Energy on a New Zealand NIP must always be in kilojoules (kJ). Energy may also be stated in calories or, more accurately, kilo-calories (cal or kcal). This information in itself may not be particularly useful until you look further down the list to the other numbers.

If the sugar value is highest then you will know that most of the kJ is derived from sugar. If the total fat value is highest then much of the kJ is from total fat.

By knowing and understanding this information, you can see where the energy (kJ) is coming from and make an informed decision about how much sugar, fat, etc you want to consume in your daily diet.

How many kilojoules do you need in a day?

The answer to this question is not easy.


The volume of kJs you need in a day depends on a variety of factors:

  • How old are you? Are you still growing? Are you retired?
  • How heavy are you?, bigger people need more energy to keep themselves going
  • What stage of life you are in, for example pregnant/lactating women need more energy than those who are not
  • How active you are? Less active people need less energy
  • Do you have any medical conditions or requirements that require a special diet


My message here is, serving size varies. You should always use the per 100 gms column to compare foods and consider the nutrition information to decide whether the sugar, fat or sodium content is right for you personally.

The Nitty Gritty


When we think of protein, we often think of meat. There are  many foods that contain proteins including nuts, vegetables, seeds, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), eggs and milk products, to name a few.


Proteins are essential for when the body is growing, repairing or replacing tissue. This doesn’t mean only young people or injured people need protein. Our bodies are constantly replacing cells, for example skin cells or blood cells, and our hair and nails are always growing.


Protein also helps other essential reactions in our bodies. It helps regulate our fluid balance and hormones. And, in desperate times, proteins will act as an energy source. 


Basically, protein is essential for our bodies and should make up 10%-35% of our energy intake. How much you need is, again, specific to each person.


Fat is also essential in our diets. There are many types of fat in our food and this is where it gets a little confusing; total fats, saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, trans-fats. This is a lot to consider so here are some basics about fat and oils. 



  • If it’s solid at room temperature, it is a saturated fat. Think butter or coconut oil or animal fat
  • If it’s liquid at room temperature, it is an unsaturated fat and is usually termed an oil 


Current research tells us that saturated fats contribute to heart disease and we should limit these in our diet. Unsaturated fats are a better type of fat and some of them  can also be good for us, for example olive oil or oily fish like salmon.


Trans-fats are considered bad and should be avoided where possible.

Carbohydrates and sugars

All sugar is a carbohydrate but not all carbohydrates are sugars.


Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source as they are more easily broken down than protein and fat.


Sugar is especially easy for the body to use but it cannot use a large amount at a single time. If we eat food that contains a high sugar content, much of that is stored in our fat cells.


A food high in carbohydrates, but NOT sugar, is better for us as this is a complex carbohydrate. This means it takes a long time for the body to break down the food. The sugar is released more slowly and doesn’t get stored. 


How many carbohydrates should you have?

Your carbohydrate intake should be between 45%-65% of your daily energy intake – so quite a bit. BUT ensure it is not high in sugar or that energy may be stored!


Sodium salt has been shown to increase blood pressure and high blood pressure is bad for our heart!


We do need a small amount of sodium each day but we will get this eating a normal balanced diet – there is no need to add salt to our food.


Salt loves water. In fact, the more salt we have, the more water will be retained in our bodies and that can make us feel bloated or puffy.


Our MAXIMUM sodium intake per day should be 2300 milligrams (mg), this is approximately ONE teaspoon. So not much! And remember, many of our vegetables and meat naturally contain sodium so there is no need to add extra to ‘ensure we get enough salt’.

Other things you may see on food labels

Specific vitamins (especially the vitamin-B group) and minerals

This is often the case when a manufacturer wants to highlight what additional “goodness” is in their foods. 


Milk products will often state ‘high calcium’ or a fruit juice may lists specific vitamins to show how much ‘goodness’ it contains.

Fibre (or dietary fibre)

A fibre-rich diet is beneficial in many ways:

  • Fibre helps regulate our bowel movements therefore reducing constipation.
  • It is associated with protecting against heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol.
  • Research also shows fibre helps reduce diabetes by lowering our glucose levels. 

If you are interested in knowing more about food labelling or product claims then please get in touch. As a qualified nutritionist*, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have

*  Bachelor of Science (Biochemistry and Biological Science) University of Canterbury

   Graduate Diploma Human Nutrition, Ara Institute of Canterbury

   Member of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, Associate Registered Nutritionist