As much as we should be fuelling our bodies with wholesome natural ingredients and steer clear of packets. The reality is, we need to buy things in boxes, tins, jars, packs or pouches sometimes.
Whether it's coconut milk vs almond milk, yoghurt vs vegan ice cream, or a snickers vs a muesli bar. There comes a time in the grocery aisle/health food store that we need to know what we're doing when it comes to labels.
So we're here to help.
In Australia it's the law that nutrition labels have a column marked 'per 100g' (or 'per 100ml' for liquids). This column combined with the ingredients list, tells us ALL we need to know, it helps us compare apples to pears and almond milk to coconut milk.
So let's start by looking here.
When comparing the above two labels:
- Check both labels are set out the same and have a 'per 100mL' column - which they do, as they're both Australian products.
- Check the ingredients list. Have a look that the ingredients are all known to you, no numbers, no science words, just regular ingredients you could go and buy yourself.
- In both of the products above, the first ingredient listed is filtered water - this means it's the most prominent ingredient by weight. They both also have sea salt listed - salt is sometimes used as a preservative or flavour enhancer, so this is fine too.
A word on salt - don't be scared of a little salt, our bodies need it to function, a lack of sodium in the body leads to hyponatraemia. What you should worry about is sodium in heavily processed foods; tinned/canned beans, chocolate bars, potato chips, fast food etc.
Back to our milks.
- Second on each list is the most important ingredient, the 'namesake' ingredient. Organic coconut milk (20%) vs activated organic almonds (10%).
- Third on both lists is organic brown rice or organic rice syrup; in both cases this is being used as a flavour enhancer/sweetener and possibly a preservative.
Straight away we can say both these products are pretty 'simple', only 4 ingredients - all familiar.
The coconut milk contains a higher percentage of coconut than the almond milk does almonds, indicating to me that the coconut milk is going to be a little 'creamier', probably more delicious, and I feel I'm getting better value.
Next comparing the nutrition labels - remember we're only looking at the 100mL column.
Protein, fat, and sugars are the main points.
- There is double the amount of protein in the coconut milk - not surprising given there is double the amount of coconut than there are almonds.
- The coconut milk has 4 times the amount of fat than the almond milk, again, not surprising considering there is twice as much actual coconut than there are almonds and we know coconut is quite high in (good) fats. This will also lend itself to the texture, we can be sure the coconut milk is creamier than the almond milk.
- The coconut milk contains 1.5 times the amount of sugar than the almond milk. This be due to the organic brown rice/rice syrup used in both products, and we can't be sure of the amounts used. Coconut meat (from which coconut milk is pressed) contains slightly more sugar than natural almonds, so this will also impact the value.
All in all the sugar content is sitting at less than 5%, so that's a great sign.
Fat and protein are fuel for your hormones, they're what keeps the engine running. They also help to keep you fuller for longer. So as long as the sugar content is below 5% (and comparable), I'd choose the coconut milk option. Along with the fact there's twice as much coconut to almonds, which makes me feel I'm getting 'more bang for my buck'.
Tips For Reading Ingredients Lists
- Be smart about it. Read the ingredients list first, if you know what it says, great, you're already on the way to a nutritious product. If you can't read it, put it back, it's likely full of crap that your body doesn't know how to process since your mouth can't pronounce.
- Look for hidden sugars, even the wholesome variety, and make sure they're at the end of the list. Honey, agave, molasses, syrup.
- Natural is best. Avoid sweeteners like stevia, these products are heavily processed to be 'generally regarded as safe' for human consumption. The body doesn't know what to do with them so stick to natural stuff.
- Once you're comparing 2 wholesome products, then worry about the nutrition panel.
Tips For Reading Nutrition Panels
- Look for ingredient lists where you can clearly identify each ingredient. Don't forget they're listed in descending order, so if there's a sweetener in there you want it toward the end of the list.
- Keep sugar content below 5% (less than 5g per 100mL/100g)
- When comparing two products choose the high protein, high fat option.
Now, to throw a spanner in the works. Let's quickly compare an Australian product to a USA product.
We'll stick with coconut milk because we're familiar now, though this time we have to look at the amounts per serve. The USA doesn't require labels to have a 'per 100mL' column. This can make things tricky.
First, check the serving sizes are similar - within 10% of each other. Above we have 250mL vs 240mL, so this is fine. If they're significantly different, you'll need your calculator to compare the amounts. You can't compare 5g of a 10g product (50%) to 5g of a 50g product (10%).
Ignore the calories/kJ column unless you have a calculator. Actually, ignore this anyway, it's pretty useless. Foods can be high in energy and nutritionally dense, or low in energy and loaded with crap. If you can read the ingredients column, that's more important.
Which brings me to my next point, I can't read that ingredients column so I'd be putting it straight back on the shelf and sticking to the coconut milk.
But in the spirit of fairness let's loop back to the nutritional panel.
- Protein: 1.4g vs 2g
- Fat: 8.1g vs 3.5g
- Sugars: 9.5g vs 0g
Looking at these numbers I'm pretty suspicious as to how they managed to remove the sugars from the almond milk, this indicates processing to me. That aside, I'd probably be inclined to pick up the almond milk, but then I'm reminded of the lengthy ingredient list with unidentifiable additives and again I'd choose the coconut milk.