How to Read Food Labels

Food packaging often contains a multitude of distracting colours, pictures and nutrition information. As a consumer strolling through the supermarket aisles, it can be hard to make healthy choices when we are faced with this overload of information and marketing. It is important and empowering to be able to know what to look for on a food label, so that you can make informed choices about the food that you buy, and ultimately put into your body. This article will outline some of the key aspects of food labelling, and help you to understand what it all means.

In Australia and New Zealand food labelling standards are enforced by the independent statutory authority FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand), who are responsible for ensuring that the food products we buy are safe, and are labelled truthfully1. There are nine mandatory inclusions on Australian food labels1, outlined below.

  1. Name/ Description of food

The name of the food product must be accurate and must not be misleading. An example is an item named “strawberry yoghurt” must contain actual strawberries, whereas a yoghurt named “strawberry flavoured yoghurt” may contain strawberry flavouring as opposed to real strawberries2.

  1. Ingredients list

Ingredients are listed in descending order3. For example, if the first ingredient listed on the ingredients list of a yoghurt was ‘low fat cow’s milk (70%)’, the means that the cow’s milk is the main ingredient, making up 70% of the yoghurt. Some food products will also provide you with percentage labelling which outlines the percentage that a ‘characterising’ ingredient contributes to a food. Using the strawberry yoghurt example again, the label would need to tell us the percentage of strawberries in the food product3.

  1. Nutrition information panel (NIP)

NIP’s are found on most packaged food products, and are required to state the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar and sodium per ‘serve’ of the food, as well as per 100g4. Additionally, they should also include the amount of any nutrients or substances for which a health claim or nutrient content has been made on the packaging, for example, the amount of calcium in a dairy product4.

Serve sizes are usually determined by the food manufacturer, and therefore one serving of a food product, for example a brand of yoghurt, may be different from the serving size of another brand of yoghurt. That is, the serving size for yoghurt ‘A’ may be 150g, while for yoghurt ‘B’ the serving size may be 100g. This information is found on the NIP, and is something to be wary of when trying to compare the nutrition content between brands or products. Furthermore, the portion that you might typically eat of a food product may be different from the suggested serving size.

  1. Country of origin labelling

The regulations around country of origin labelling have recently changed, and as of 1 July 2018 many food manufacturers are required to include the logo containing the green and yellow kangaroo in a triangle with the yellow bar down the bottom.5 This represents where the food product was made, and the proportion of ingredients that were made in Australia5. See the example below.

  1. Allergen declaration

Ingredients such as peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, milk, eggs, gluten, sesame and soybean must be declared on the packaging if the food contains these ingredients, or there is a chance due to processing that the food product will contain these ingredients6.

  1. Manufacturer name and contact information

The food product manufacturer is required to provide the name of the food product as well as the name and business address of the food supplier, so that you as a consumer can contact them should you have any queries1.

  1. Weight/ volume of product

The food product manufacturer is required to ensure that the correct weight or measurement of the food product is clearly stated on the label10. Additionally, food labels are required to be legible and easy to read, and all information must not be misleading or false10.

  1. Storage information

Keep an eye out for foods that need to be refrigerated, or once opened consumed within a certain number of days.

  1. Use-by or best before information

Use-by and expiration dates mean two different things.  If a food product has a ‘use-by’ date it means that it must be eaten before or on the date, and should not be eaten after the date7. The food product cannot be legally sold past this date7. On the other hand, if a food product has a ‘best before’ date, this means that the food product can be eaten past this date and it should be safe to do so, although the food may be have lost some of its quality e.g. a colour change may occur7. Foods with a best before date can be legally sold past this date7.

 

Voluntary inclusions on food labels include pictures, endorsements or competitions, cross-promotions, environmental claims and certifications (e.g. ‘halal’ or ‘organic’). In addition, food manufacturers may choose to include health claims. These fall into three levels:

  1. Nutrition content claims

These are statements about the content of specified nutrients or substances in a food e.g. “high calcium milk”8

  1. General level health claims

These are statements about the specified nutrients of substances which have an effect on health but do not refer to a serious disease e.g. “calcium is good for strong bones”8

  1. High-level health claims

These are statements about the specified nutrients of substances which have an effect on health and refer to a serious disease e.g. “high calcium diets may increase bone mineral density”8

 

Most commonly, the type of health claims that you will see on food packaging will be nutrition content claims. Outlined below are explanations of some common ones.

  • “Low fat”

This means that the food product contains equal to or less than 3g of fat per 100g of solid food or 1.5g of fat per 100mL of liquid food 8, 9

  • “Reduced fat, salt”

This means that the food product contains equal to or more than 25% less fat or salt, respectively, than the same quantity of a reference food product 8,9

  • “Low sugar”

This means that the food product contains equal to or less than 5g of sugar per 100g of solid food or 2.5g of sugar per 100mL of liquid food 8,9

  • “Source of fibre”/ “good source of fibre”

This means that the food product contains at least 2g of dietary fibre per serve 8,9

  • “Low salt”

This means that the food product contains equal to or less than 120mg of sodium per 100g of solid food, or 100mL of liquid food 8,9

It is important to keep in mind that there are some foods which do not have to comply to food packaging standards, for example fresh fruit and vegetables.

If you would like more information on food packaging or FSANZ, please visit www.foodstandards.gov.au/foodlabelling or follow FSANZ on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

Author: Lucy Harris, Fremantle Women’s Health Centre – Youth Ambassador Team Leader

References

 

  1. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Labelling [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/industry/labelling/Pages/default.aspx
  2. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Truth in labelling, weights and measures and legibility [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/truth/Pages/default.aspx
  3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Ingredients list and percentage labelling [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/ingredients/Pages/default.aspx
  4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Nutrition information panels [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/panels/Pages/default.aspx
  5. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (Au). Country of origin food labelling [Internet]. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (Au); 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: https://www.accc.gov.au/business/advertising-promoting-your-business/country-of-origin-claims/country-of-origin-food-labelling
  6. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Food allergies [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/foodallergies/Pages/default.aspx
  7. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Use by and best before dates [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/dates/Pages/default.aspx
  8. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Nutrition content claims and health claims [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 July 31]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/nutrition/Pages/default.aspx
  9. Whitney E, Rolfes S.R, Crowe T, Cameron-Smith D, Walsh A. Understanding Nutrition. 3rd ed. South Melbourne, VIC: Cengage Learning Australia Pty Limited; 2017.
  10. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Au & NZ). Truth in labelling, weights and measures and legibility [Internet]. Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2018 [cited 2018 August 1]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/truth/Pages/default.aspx
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