Does the cereal aisle of your supermarket turn you glassy-eyed? Do you have trouble figuring out which yoghurt is best? It's not just you - breakfast cereal and yoghurt are two of the products that stump us the most, says dietitian Kate Gudorf who leads regular supermarket tours with clients to show them how to shop for healthier foods.
"When there's an entire aisle devoted to cereal people struggle to compare different brands," she says. "Some cereals also carry a health halo that's deceptive - words like 'added vitamins and minerals' often appear on products that are the most highly processed.
"With yoghurt people often feel overwhelmed by what I call 'designer yoghurt' - should they choose Greek yoghurt or low fat, no fat or no added sugar - or one that claims to improve digestion? There's also an assumption that yoghurt is always healthy - people are often surprised when they realise how much sugar some products contain."
But there are ways to find healthier products faster. One is skipping the 'Per serving' column of the nutrition panel and reading the figures in the 'Per 100g' column instead. When comparing brands for kilojoules or ingredients like sodium, sugar, fibre or saturated fat, the 'Per serving' column isn't much help because serving sizes vary from product to product, explains Gudorf.
It also helps to learn some 'benchmark' numbers that tell you whether yoghurt has too much sugar or if there's not enough fibre in your muesli - there should be at least 5g of fibre per 100g in a breakfast cereal, she says and less than 10g of sugar per 100g of yoghurt.
In the breakfast aisle, heading to the oats section keeps cereal shopping simple and, with home brand oats, affordable. Traditional oats, as opposed to instant or quick oats, are minimally processed, have no added sugar or salt and you get lots of fibre for your money - traditional oats have around 9g of fibre per 100g. Some products that mix traditional oats with other minimally processed grains like barley can have much more.
Muesli has one of the shiniest halos in the cereal aisle and a good one can be a source of healthy fats, nutrients and fibre. But there can be pitfalls - toasted muesli can be higher in kilojoules and some products contain a lot of sugar. With any breakfast cereal, muesli included, it's best to choose products with no more than 20g of sugar per 100g, but if a cereal or muesli contains fruit then up to 25g per 100g is acceptable, she says.
Too much salt in breakfast food is often a sign of a cheaper corn or wheat-based cereal.
"Salt adds flavour - without it some cereals would probably taste like cardboard," she says. "Cereal should have no more than 400 mg sodium per 100g."
With yoghurt, it's hard to beat unflavoured products.
"So many flavoured yoghurts are high in sugar - they're more like dessert. Greek yoghurt doesn't have extra health benefits although some brands may be higher in protein," Gudorf says. "If you want to lose or maintain weight, low fat plain yoghurt makes sense because it has fewer kilojoules, but if you're young and active full fat may be OK."
As for the benefit of probiotics in yoghurt - friendly bacteria that may promote gut health - the evidence is mixed. Some research shows they may help treat irritable bowel syndrome, eczema and diarrhoea or enhance immune function.
"But some brands making a health claim base these claims on their own research - in some cases, the benefits were achieved when research participants ate two to three servings of yoghurt daily over several weeks. That's a lot of yoghurt," she says.
"I'd suggest finding a plain low fat yoghurt and enjoying it for its other benefits, like calcium, potassium, magnesium and protein."
- What are your tips for health-smart supermarket shopping?
- FFX Aus