National Healthy School Canteens

Trainer's Manual

Topic 1: Nutrition basics

Page last updated: 22 October 2013

(Slides 14–26)

Definition of nutrition

The study of components in foods, called nutrients, and how they are ingested, digested, absorbed, transported and used, including how they interact and how they are stored and excreted.

While obviously important, nutrition is not the only factor that influences our food choices and what we eat.

Brainstorming and Group Discussion Symbol

Group discussion: Circumstances that affect eating habits

(Slide 16/Participant’s Workbook p.6)

What factors influence the requirements of canteen customers ?
Have the participants consider the photos on SLIDE 16 and identify how these and other physical, social and cultural factors influence what a child eats.

Ask them if they think the canteen menu can potentially influence children’s eating habits as canteen customers.

The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate that food choices are influenced by a variety of factors, some of which need to be considered when planning canteen menus. Planning canteen menus to incorporate special dietary needs, trends and cultural needs is addressed in Topic 3.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGTHE)

The AGTHE aims to encourage the consumption of a variety of foods from each food group every day in proportions that are consistent with recommendations in the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines Foods are grouped together into the following food groups on the basis of their nutrient similarity:
  • Vegetables and legumes
  • Fruits
  • Dairy and alternatives
  • Meat and alternatives
  • Grains and cereals
Nutrients are substances from foods that the body uses to maintain life and to grow and repair tissues. There are six major classes of nutrients:
1. Proteins: found in meat, dairy, legumes, nuts, seafood and eggs.
2. Carbohydrates: found in fruit, pasta, rice, cereals, breads, potatoes, milk and sugar.
3. Lipids: commonly called fats, and found in oils, butter, margarine, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, meat and seafood.
4. Vitamins: includes the water soluble B group vitamins and vitamin C and the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K.
a. Fruits and vegetables are generally good sources of Vitamin C, A and folic acid (B group vitamin).
b. Grains and cereals are generally good sources of the B group vitamins and fibre.
c. Full-fat dairy and egg yolks are generally good sources of the fat soluble vitamins, A, D and E.
d. Milk and vegetable or soya bean oils are generally good sources of vitamin K, which can also be synthesised by gut bacteria.
5. Minerals: includes sodium, calcium, iron, iodine and magnesium.
a. Milk and dairy products are a good source of calcium and magnesium.
b. Red meat is a good source of iron and zinc.
c. Seafood and vegetables are generally a good source of iodine.
Vitamins and minerals are support nutrients. They are needed in small amounts to promote and regulate the chemical processes needed for growth and the maintenance of good health.
6. Water: Water is considered an essential nutrient, forming part of the cells of the body. It also helps maintain blood volume, aids in regulating the temperature of the body and is used as a medium to transport substances. Most of the water in the body needs to be provided in the diet. This includes the foods we eat (for example, fruits are mostly water) as well as what we drink.

These days nutritionists are interested in a 7th category of substances in foods, which, while not classed as essential nutrients, are known to play important roles in promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease. These are called phytochemicals and are found in plants (phyto = plant). There are hundreds of them, some of the most well known are beta-carotene, lycopene and phytosterols. Phytochemicals vary in their chemical composition and each one has one or more specific function in the body.


Energy is not a nutrient, but comes from carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. The unit of energy used in Australia is the kilojoule. The conversion is 4.2kJ = 1Cal

Nutrient Kilojoules/gram Calories/gram
Lipids (fats and oils)379


Proteins are the building blocks of the human body. The body uses them to make its own proteins (for example: enzymes, hormones, antibodies, collagen etc.). Proteins are made of a chain of molecules known as amino acids. In the body, we need 20 different amino acids to make the proteins required. Amino acids are obtained from eating a variety of foods from animals and plants. Only animal foods contain all the amino acids needed by the body in sufficient quantities. Plants contain a variety of amino acids as well. However, they are often deficient in one or more amino acid. For those people who do not eat animal protein, this is not a problem, as long as a wide variety of plant foods are consumed across the day.

Examples of non-animal protein combinations which provide all of the essential amino acids include, corn and legumes (for example: Mexican bean enchilada), or cereal and legumes (for example: Asian Tofu and rice or Australian baked beans on toast).


Carbohydrates consist of ‘simple’ sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) and starches (polysaccharides or ‘complex’ carbohydrates). Once eaten, carbohydrates are broken down to glucose and used for energy by the body. This group of foods (bread, rice, pasta, grains, some vegetables, legumes, milk and fruit) are good sources of nutrients, as well as energy.

Carbohydrates can be classified as:
Monosaccharides (one sugar molecule)
  • glucose (also called dextrose)
  • fructose (fruit sugar)
  • galactose (formed during the digestion of milk)
Disaccharides (two sugar molecules)
  • lactose (glucose and galactose)
  • sucrose, better know as table sugar (glucose and fructose)
  • maltose (two molecules of glucose)
Polysaccharides (three or more sugar molecules)
  • foods made up of polysaccharides may contain thousands of sugar molecules and are sometimes referred to as ‘starchy’ foods (for example: bread, cereals, rice, potato, pasta and some legumes).


It is important to monitor the amount of added sugar in foods such as refined cereals. Naturally occurring sugars in foods are not a problem (for example: lactose in milk or fructose in fruit). However, when sugars are extracted from their natural source they are devoid of nutrients, and in excess, replace other valuable nutrients in the diet and provide excess kilojoules. Added sugar is not always just white table sugar. Some products contain more than one type of added sugar. All sugars have the same amount of kilojoules no matter where they are derived from.

Some common names for added sugar used on labels in Australia include brown sugar, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, lactose, malt extract, maltose, modified carbohydrate, molasses, maple syrup, raw sugar, sucrose.


Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that humans cannot digest using the normal digestive acids and enzymes in the stomach and small intestine and is found in plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and cereals. There are two major categories of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Bacteria in the large intestine can break down some types of fibre (mostly soluble) and produce by-products like gas and a small amount of healthy fats (small chain fatty acids). Fibre absorbs water and increases the bulk of stools (‘poo’), making them moist and easy to pass. In addition, fibre helps excrete cholesterol, promotes ‘healthy’ bowel bacteria, delays the digestion of simple sugars and promotes a feeling of fullness. Population studies linking the increased consumption of fibre from whole grains to a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colon cancer have shown consistent results (CSIRO 2009).

Fats and oils (lipids)

Most people refer to lipids as fats. Fats are solid at room temperature and oils are liquid at room temperature. Lipids are further classified as saturated or unsaturated. This classification is according to their chemical structure. All fats contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats but their overall classification is determined by the type of fat that is the predominant fat. The saturated fats are often referred to as ‘bad fats’ as they are known to contribute to plaque formation in the arteries and the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases. The foods high in saturated fats are meats, cold meats, butter, cheese, yoghurt, milk, coconut milk and cream and palm oil (which is often disguised as vegetable oil on food labels).

The unsaturated fats can further be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are considered the healthy fats and are listed in the table below. Foods containing a high proportion of unsaturated fats include plant foods (except coconut and palm), eggs, lean meat and fish. The omega fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated fats. Lipids contribute more than twice as many kilojoules per gram as either protein or carbohydrates. All lipids have the same amount of kilojoules no matter where they are derived from.

Some common names for fats used on labels in Australia include animal oil, beef fat, butter fat, copha, lard, milk solids, palm oil, shortening, tallow, vegetable oil.

Type of healthy fatFood source
Monounsaturated fatOlive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds
Polyunsaturated fatVegetable oils (such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and
cottonseed oils), nuts and seeds
Omega-3 fatty acidsOily, cold-water fish (such as salmon, mackerel and herring),
flaxseeds, flax oil and walnuts

Group Work and Problem Solving Symbol

Activity: Nutrients of interest

(SLIDE 24/Participant’s Workbook p.7)
What foods contain mostly saturated or unsaturated fats?
Have participants go to the table on page 7 of their workbook and indicate which type of fat is the predominant fat in each of the foods listed by ticking the appropriate box.
Highlight the answers and ask if there were any fats that they were unsure how to classify. Some points to highlight at the end of this activity:
  • Coconut oil and palm oil, although from plant sources, are high in saturated fats.
  • Most table margarines these days are predominantly unsaturated fats, although some margarines are high in saturated fat.
  • Nuts and seeds are good sources of unsaturated fats, although they should not be eaten in excess as they are relatively high in total fat and therefore energy.
  • Game meats, such as kangaroo and rabbits are lean meats (low in total fat) and what fat they have, is mostly polyunsaturated because of the types of food these animals eat and the amount of energy they expend foraging for foods.
  • Unspecified vegetable oils (that is, those simply labelled vegetable oil unless identified as being sunflower or safflower etc.) are likely to be palm oil and therefore will be predominantly saturated fats.

Nutrition - Nutrients of Interest

What foods contain mostly saturated or unsaturated fats?(Workbook, p.7)
Canola Oil
Coconut cream
Coconut milk
Fatty Meat
Game Meat (e.g. kangaroo, rabbit)
Olive Oil
Palm Oil
Sunflower Oil
Vegetable Oil

Other nutrients of interest

Sodium intake

In terms of menu planning, another nutrient that we need to pay attention to is sodium, because over consumption may contribute to the incidence of high blood pressure. The National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that consumption of sodium in all age groups exceeded the recommended upper level of intake (DoHA 2008).

Sodium occurs naturally in food. However, most sodium consumption comes from processed foods as well as being added to food through table salt (sodium chloride). The function of sodium in the body, along with potassium, is to control the pressure and volume of blood and to balance the water content inside body cells.

Some common names for salt/sodium used on labels in Australia include baking soda, celery salt, garlic salt, monosodium glutamate (may appear as MSG or z621), rock salt, sea salt, sodium bicarbonate.


Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth. You may have heard the term ‘peak bone mass’. This refers to the greatest amount of bone that you have in your lifetime. Peak bone mass is achieved somewhere between the ages of 16 and 30. Because most bone is formed in childhood and adolescence, calcium is an important nutrient for children. Low calcium intake has been associated with low bone mass, which often results in bone fractures later in life (osteoporosis).

The recommended dietary intake (RDI)2 for school children aged 9-18 years is 1000mg- 1300mg of calcium a day. The most recent National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey identified calcium as a nutrient at risk, especially in older children. Older children (9-16 years) were least likely to meet the estimated average requirements (EAR)3 of 800mg–1050mg of calcium daily (DoHA 2008). In the 12-13 year old age group almost 70% of all children did not meet the EAR3. This figure rises to almost 90% if we look at girls aged 12-13 years in isolation.

Dairy products are the best source of calcium in the diet. Other good sources of calcium include fortified soy products (milk, yoghurts) and fish with bones (salmon and sardines).

Food labelling

(Slides 27–33)
In order for participants to be able to apply the NHSC nutrient criteria, it is important that they have a common understanding of the key elements of a food label and are able to read a Nutrition Information Panel (NIP).

Food labels contain a lot of information. Manufacturers have to follow specific rules for labels and this is monitored by FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand).

Food labels must tell the truth, be legible and contain the name or description of the food. Exceptions are very small packages, foods with no significant nutritional value (for example, herb, spice, tea, coffee), foods sold unpackaged (unless a nutrient claim is made) and foods made and packaged at the point of sale (for example, bread from the local bakery).

Food labels should contain the following information.
  • List of ingredients listed by weight in descending order (that is, the first ingredient contributes the largest amount to the product and the last ingredient contributes the least).
  • Nutrition information panel (NIP) presented in a standard format showing energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate and sodium per serving and per 100g (or 100mL if a liquid).
  • Percentage labelling information – the product must show the percentage of the key or characterising ingredients or components of the food.
  • The number or the name of any additives (monosodium glutamate may appear as MSG or 621, for example).
  • If the product contains any major allergens, such as nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts etc.), shellfish, fish, eggs, sesame seeds, soybeans, wheat and gluten, they must be declared on the label. In addition, foods containing more than 10mg sulphite preservatives/kg must be labelled as containing sulphite, as this is the level that may trigger asthma attacks in some asthmatics. This information is often found close to the ingredient list.
  • Date marking includes use-by date, best before and ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’. Food must be eaten before the use-by date for health and safety reasons (for example, yoghurt). The exception to this is bread that can be labelled ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’. The best before date is used on foods with a shelf life of less than two years. Food may still be edible after the best before date, but may have lost some quality (for example, canned foods).
  • If the product needs to be stored in a specific way to maintain quality, storage requirements need to be indicated on the label, for example: keep frozen (ice cream), refrigerate below specific temperature (milk) or store in a dry, cool place (flour).
  • Country of origin refers to the country the product was made or produced in.
  • The name and business address of the supplier of the food. This assists with consumer queries such as suspected food poisoning or where a food has been recalled.
  • Some labels may contain ‘nutrient content claims’ (health claims). These are explained later.

Group Work and Problem Solving Symbol

Activity: Food label ingredient lists

(Slide 31/Participant’s Workbook pp. 8-9)
Have participants turn to pages 8 and 9 of their workbook and complete the activity on how to read an ingredient list.

Can they recognise the different types of added sugars used in the full-fat strawberry yoghurt and the breakfast cereal? Manufacturers often use more than one sweetener so that sugar does not top the list of ingredients.

Nutrition Information Panel

A NIP must be listed on nearly all packaged foods. Exceptions are very small packages, foods with no significant nutritional value (for example, herb, spice, tea, coffee), foods sold unpackaged (unless a nutrient claim is made), and foods made and packaged at the point of sale.

These panels list the nutrients for the food per serving (the serving size is determined by the manufacturer) and per 100g. To compare two products, use the per 100g column. The ‘per serve’ column gives consumers an indication of what their nutrient intake would be if they ate the equivalent of a serve as described on the packet. Remember that the manufacturer’s serving size may not reflect your own serving size or the example serve listed in The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

It is compulsory to list the following nutrients. Energy is listed in kilojoules (kJ), protein (in grams), fat (in grams), and must show the total quantity as well as the amount contributed by saturated fats. Likewise for carbohydrates (in grams) – both the total amount and the amount contributed by sugar must appear. Sodium (in micrograms) is also compulsory.

Nutrition claims

If the product has a ‘nutrient content claim’ (for example: high in fibre, high in calcium, low in cholesterol), the manufacturer has to indicate the quantity of that nutrient in the NIP. Some examples of nutrition claims include:


  • Low-fat: Less than 3g fat/100g food (or 1.5g/100g liquid).
  • Reduced-fat: At least 25% less fat than the regular product.
  • Fat-free: No more than 0.15g total fat/100g food.


  • No added sugar: No added sucrose, glucose, honey, malt, fruit juice etc.
  • Unsweetened: No added artificial sweeteners, sucrose, glucose, honey, malt, fruit juice etc.
  • Diet: At least 40% less kJ than the regular product – these products usually contain intense (artificial) sweeteners.


  • Low-salt/no added salt/salt free: Less than 120mg sodium/100g (0.3%) or not more than 50% of the sodium content of the regular product.
  • Reduced-salt/sodium, salt/sodium free and no added salt/sodium: At least 25% less salt/ sodium than the regular product.


  • High (in) fibre: At least 3g or more fibre per serve.
Brainstorming and Group Discussion Symbol

Group discussion: Food label ingredients list

Slide 33/Participant’s Workbook p.9)
What claims do you look for on food labels when ordering for the school canteen? Some discussion points arising from this slide may include the following.
  • Don’t rely on the claims alone; check the label.
  • Reduced-fat does not necessarily mean low-fat (for example, low-fat cheddar cheese ~ 23% fat vs full-fat cheddar cheese ~ 34% fat); it just needs to be 25% less than the regular product to be labelled as reduced-fat.
  • 94% fat-free yoghurt/milk is regular yoghurt/milk (~4% fat). Full-fat milk ~3.6% fat.
Web Resources Symbol

Web resources

Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
The Australian Guide to Health Eating is a food selection guide which visually represents the proportion of the five food groups recommended for consumption each day. It reflects the multicultural nature of the population relevant for all sectors of the food and nutrition industry.

Children Nutrition Topics (Victorian Government Health Information)
This website provides fact sheets and information about nutrition for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and children at school.

2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines
The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines are based on the best available scientific evidence and provide information for health professionals and the general population about healthy food choices. The use of the guidelines will encourage healthy lifestyles that will minimise the risk of the development of diet-related diseases within the Australian population.

Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) – Smart Eating For You: Nutrition A–Z
A guide covering nutrition information presented in an A-Z format. All material available on this website has been written and regularly reviewed by Accredited Practising Dietitians. (This website link was valid at the time of submission)

Food Standards Australia New Zealand Government Website
The Food Matters section of this website contains information on food allergies, additives and other information in relation to standards set in Australia and New Zealand for food. The News Room link provides fact sheets, media releases, speeches and presentations.

Healthy Weight Guide (Australian Government)
The Healthy Weight Guide is a comprehensive source of information which is available to the Australian public on how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. The Healthy Weight Guide consists of an interactive website as well as printed materials for those who don’t have access to the internet, and provides: information about healthy weight, physical activity and healthy eating; tips and tools to assist with setting goals and planning healthy meals and physical activity; and a registered area where users can record and track their weight and progress.

Health Insite – Food and Nutrition
An Australian Government Initiative website containing links to topics such as diet, family nutrition and key nutrients.

Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand
The (Nutrient Reference Values) NRV’s are a set of recommendations for nutritional intake based on currently available scientific knowledge. On this page you will find information on a wide variety of foods and the nutrients they contain. There is also a calculator for determining the nutrient recommendations for specific ages and genders.

2 RDI – The average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97–98%) healthy individuals in a particular life stage and gender group
3 EAR – A daily nutrient level estimated to meet the requirements of half the healthy individuals in a particular life stage and gender group (NHMRC 2006)