Food labels help us to make healthy and safe food choices. But there’s so much nutritional information on food labels that they can sometimes be confusing. Here’s how to read food labels and work out how healthy a food is – or isn’t.
Food labels and nutritional information panels: what and where they are
Food labels are included on all food products, except for very small packets and fresh foods like fruit, vegetables and local bakery or organic products.
Food labels tell you what ingredients or additives are in the food. They give you nutritional information about the food and food storage instructions. They also tell you who manufactured the food.
Nutritional information panels (NIPs) are a part of the food label. These tell you what nutrients the food contains and how much of each nutrient there is.
When you buy a packaged food product, have a look at the back of the packet. You should be able to see a box with a heading like ‘Nutritional information’. Under the heading, you’ll see categories like:
- serving size
- dietary fibre
The nutritional information on food labels helps you work out how healthy a food is. But keep in mind that some of the healthiest foods can be unlabelled – fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain breads, nuts, lentils, beans, fresh meat and fish.
Ingredients on food labels
In Australia, food manufacturers must be truthful on their food labels.
A food label can include only the ingredients that are in the food product. For example, strawberry yoghurt must contain strawberries.
The label also has to list the amount of the ingredient that’s in the food. This information is in the ingredients list, where it will be written as a percentage – for example, ‘strawberries (20%)’.
All ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including added water. The ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount. So if sugar is the first ingredient it means that sugar is the main ingredient and the product is high in sugar. The ingredient listed last is present in the smallest amount.
Nutritional informational panels
All foods have to list seven food components on their nutritional information panels – energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. Manufacturers might decide to include other nutrients, like fibre and calcium, too.
Comparing the nutritional information on different food products helps you work out the healthiest choice. All you need to do is see which one has lower saturated fat, lower sodium, lower sugar and higher fibre.
When you’re comparing two products, look at the ‘per 100 gm’ information on each, rather than the ‘per serving’ information. This way you can compare the same thing on each product.
Things to look out for on food labels: energy, fat, sugar and salt
Energy is listed on the panel as kilojoules (kj). Fats, protein and carbohydrates all provide your body with the energy or kilojoules you need to function and do your daily activities. When comparing similar foods, lower energy usually means lower fat or sugar, which means that the food is a better choice for most people.
Fat, sugar and salt in disguise
Manufacturers can list fat, sugar or salt content under different names. This means that these food components might seem ‘hidden’ on the nutritional information panel or ingredient list. These components might go by different names – but whatever they’re called, high fat, sugar and salt content generally means the food is less healthy.
Fat might also be called beef fat, butter, shortening, coconut, palm oil, copha, cream, dripping, lard, mayonnaise, sour cream, vegetable oils and fats, hydrogenated oils, full cream milk powder, egg or mono/di/triglycerides.
Sugar might be called brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, disaccharides, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, fruit syrup, lactose, malt, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, monosaccharides, raw sugar, sorbitol or xylitol.
Salt might be listed as baking powder, booster, celery salt, garlic salt, sodium, meat or yeast extract, onion salt, MSG, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphite, sodium nitrate, nitrate or stock cubes.
Some packaged foods have a health star rating. This system looks at how nutritious foods are and rates foods from half a star to five stars. The more stars a food has, the healthier it is.
Many foods contain food additives. There are strict guidelines about the way food additives are used in foods and labelled on food products. All food additives must be shown on the ingredients list – for example, thickener (1442). The label must say if an additive is based on a potential allergen – for example, wheat thickener (1442).
You can get a list of food additive names, numbers and common uses from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand food additives webpage.
A very small number of people are sensitive to some food additives, most commonly artificial colours, preservatives and flavour enhancers. If you think your child might have a sensitivity, see your GP or dietitian
to talk about food allergies and intolerances
Food allergy information
Just nine foods cause 90% of all food allergic reactions – peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, cow’s milk, hen’s eggs, soybeans, sesame and wheat. If these ingredients are in a food product, manufacturers must say so, no matter how small the amount.
The information can be stated in a few different ways. For example, if you’re checking a product for egg, you might see:
- albumin (egg)
- egg albumin
- contains egg – at the end of the ingredients list
- sugar, chocolate, eggs – in bold type in the ingredients list.
‘May contain traces of’
Manufacturers might include this warning if a food is made on the same equipment as, or close to, other foods that contain potential food allergens.
It’s voluntary for manufacturers to use ‘may contain’ statements, so a product that doesn’t have a ‘may contain’ statement might not be safer than one that does.
It’s important to talk to your GP or dietitian about this issue if your child has a severe food allergy.
Double-checking nutrition and health claims
Nutrition claims on food labels and in food advertising – like ‘low-fat’ on a packet of chips – can be confusing and misleading. Nutrition claims might grab your attention, but it’s always a good idea to look at the nutritional information panel.
Here are some points to bear in mind about common nutrition and health claims:
- Cholesterol free: a product might be 100% cholesterol free, but still contain fat.
- Fat free: for a manufacturer to make this claim, the product must have less than 0.15% fat.
- Lite or light: this might just mean the food is light in colour, flavour or texture. You should still check the fat content on the nutritional information panel.
- Organic or certified organic: various private organisations can certify products as organic. Each organisation must meet national standards, but different organisations also have different certification requirements.
- Oven baked, not fried: these products might still be sprayed or coated with fat before cooking, making them high fat. It’s best to check the fat content.
- Reduced fat or salt: a product with this claim should have at least 25% less fat or salt than the original product. It doesn’t mean it has less fat or less salt than a similar product.
- Sugar free or no added sugar: this means the product is free of sucrose, or table sugar, but not other forms of sugar. It could still be high in kilojoules, salt or fat.
- 93% fat free: this might sound good, but it means the product still has 7% fat.
Manufacturers must stick to standards that control what they can say about the nutritional content and healthiness of their food.
‘Use by’ and ‘Best before’ dates
All foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a date on them that tells you when the manufacturer advises the food will either be unsafe to eat or not as good to eat:
Use by is for perishable foods like meat, fish and dairy. This is the date that tells you when a food is ‘off’. It’s illegal for shops to sell food past its ‘Use by’ date.
Best before tells you the date when the food will still be safe to eat but might not be of the best quality anymore.
Baked on or packed on is the date the food was manufactured or packed. This tells you how fresh it is. You might see this on foods like bread and meat.