Food labels and nutrition panels: what and where they are
Food labels are included on all food products, except for very small packets and fresh foods. They tell you what ingredients are in the product, as well as who manufactured them.
Nutrition information panels are 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 ‘Nutrition information’. Under the heading, you’ll see words like:
- servings per package
- serving size
- dietary fibre
Nutrient information is listed as a ‘per serve’ amount. (The size of the serve can vary and might be different from the amount you or your child actually eat.) All products also have to list the amount of nutrients per 100ml or 100g, which makes it easier for you to compare different products.
Other information you should find on a product’s food label include its ingredients, and its use by or best before date.
By looking at the nutrients, ingredients and dates, you can work out whether the food is OK to include in your family’s diet.
Food labelling rules
In Australia, food manufacturers must be truthful on their food labels.
For example, manufacturers can list only the foods that are actually in the food product. So strawberry yoghurt must contain strawberries. The label also has to list the amount of strawberry that’s actually in the yoghurt. This information is in the ingredients list, where it will be written as a percentage – for example, ‘strawberries (20%)’.
All packaged foods that are big enough to fit an appropriate label must display an ingredients list. All ingredients are listed from largest to smallest amount, except for any ingredient that makes up less than 5% of the food.
Working out what’s in your food
All foods have to list seven nutrients – energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. Manufacturers might decide to include other nutrients too. If they make a claim on the label such as ‘high in fibre’, the fibre content has to be listed.
Fat, sugar or 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 nutrition panel or ingredient list.
These components might go by different names.
Fat might 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 could be 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.
When you’re deciding between two products, the healthier choice will be the one that has lower saturated fat, lower sodium, lower sugar and higher fibre listed on the nutrition information panel.
Many foods contain food additives. There are strict guidelines about the way food additives are labelled on food products.
All food additives must be identified in the ingredients list, usually by the type of additive and its standard code number – for example, Thickener (1442). The label must indicate if an additive is based on a potential allergen – for example, wheat thickener (1442).
Food additives don’t necessarily make a food an unhealthy choice. Food manufacturers use additives for a variety of purposes, such as ensuring a particular taste or texture, or extending the product’s shelf life. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) makes sure that manufacturers meet safety standards for the types and amounts of additives they use.
You can get a list of food additive names, numbers and common uses from the FSANZ 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 to talk about food allergies and intolerances
Looking for food allergy information
Just eight foods are responsible for 95% of all severe allergic reactions – peanuts and other nuts, seafood, fish, milk, eggs, soybeans, sesame and wheat and other gluten-containing grains. 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
- at the end of the ingredients list – ‘contains egg’
- bold type in the ingredients list – sugar, chocolate, eggs.
‘May contain traces of’
These statements are used by manufacturers to tell you that the product ‘may contain traces of’ a potential food allergen. It’s voluntary for manufacturers to use these 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 doctor or dietitian about this issue if your child has a severe food allergy.
Double-checking nutrition claims
Nutrition claims – like a manufacturer printing ‘low-fat’ on a packet of chips – can be confusing and misleading. Nutrition claims might grab your attention, but it’s a good idea to look at the nutrition information panel to check for yourself.
Here are some points to bear in mind about common nutrition 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.
- Organic or Certified Organic: the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, together with industry, has set guidelines that must be met for manufacturers to label a product organic.
- Oven-baked, not fried: these products might still be sprayed or coated with fat before cooking, making them high fat. You should check the fat content.
- Reduced fat or salt: these products 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, but not other forms of sugar. It could still be high in kilojoules.
- 93% fat-free: this might sound good, but it means the product still has 7% fat.
‘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:
Best before tells you the date when the food will still be safe to eat but might not be best quality anymore.
Use by is for perishable foods such as meat, fish and dairy. This is the date that tells us when a food is ‘off’. It’s illegal for shops to sell food past its use by date.
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.