This article explains ingredients lists on food products and which ingredients on the list to look out for, to  provide your children with a balanced diet. As passionate parents, endeavouring to provide our kids with a balanced diet, we need to understand ingredients lists.

Reading an ingredients list

  • This can tell you a lot about what has gone into a food to make the final product.
  • Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, starting with the largest amount first. If fat or sugar is near the top of the list, it is likely it is a high fat or high sugar food.
  • By reading the ingredients list you can also check out exactly how much of the key ingredient has gone into a product. For example, what percentage of plum jam is actually made from plums.

The following is a portion of an ingredient list for a fruit bar promoted as containing real fruit and being low in fat.

Apple filling (33%) [apple puree (10%), dextrose, sugar, maltodextrin, wheat fibre, starch, pectin, food acids (citric, calcium citrate), natural flavour] wheat flour (plain & wholemeal) sugar, golden syrup, dietary fibre (wheat fibre, chicory inulin), brown sugar, coconut, margarine…
  • The ingredients list starts off with the apple filling so the apple filling is the main part of the product (in fact it is 33% of the product).
  • What goes into the apple filling is specified in the closed square brackets. As you can see apple is actually only 10% of the filling.
  • After the closed brackets it goes on to list the other ingredients used to make the wheat portion of the cereal bar.

Fat content on an ingredients list

Reading the ingredients list this product certainly does not appear high in fat – margarine is the only fat listed and it is well down the list.

Sugar content of the ingredients

However it does have a lot of different sugars added – in fact there are six sugars listed in the ingredients list. So while it is low in fat it may still be relatively high in energy, due to its high sugar content. If you are trying to lose weight, then this product may not be the best choice for you because of its total energy value.

So when you read an ingredient list you also need to know how to recognise different ingredients.

Other names for fat and sugar on an ingredients list:

Unsuitable fats

  • beef / fat dripping / lard
  • butter fat
  • cocoa butter
  • baking margarine
  • shortening
  • chocolate / carob
  • vegetable fat / oil
  • palm oil
  • animal fat
  • coconut oil
  • hydrogenated vegetable fat

More suitable fats

  • poly unsaturated fats / oils
  • unsaturated fats /oils
  • safflower / sunflower oil
  • olive / canola oil
  • peanut / soybean / corn oil
  • safflower / sunflower oil

Types of sugar

  • anything ending with the term ‘ose’- such as sucrose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, fructose, glucose
  • honey
  • corn syrup
  • golden syrup
  • the term ‘saccharides’ – such as disaccharides or monosaccharide
  • molasses
  • sugar – raw / brown
  • malt / malt extract
  • xylitol
  • sorbitol
  • mannitol

The ingredients list must also clearly identify sources of any major food allergens in that product. For instance, dairy, wheat, eggs and nuts must be clearly identified in the ingredients list.

Additives in ingredients

  • The ingredients list also needs to state colourings and flavourings, along with other additives such as thickeners and stabilizers.
  • The specific name of the additive or the code number must be stated.
  • The Ministry of Health does publish a small booklet helping to decode the numbers for you. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has the code number 621, but because people can react to it this additive must be stated as MSG as well as its code number.

So reading the ingredients list alone can give you a good indication of how a product might stack up. It is also good to read this information in conjunction with the Nutrition Information Panel.

Useful Articles

To understand Food Labelling At a Glance visit our great Kiwi Families article, by mum and dietitian, Fiona Boyle.

For more information on how to read a NIP, check out the article in this section on Nutrition Information Panels.

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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