About food labels and nutrition information panels
Food labels are labels on packaged food products that tell you:
- what ingredients and additives are in the food
- how to store the food
- who manufactured the food.
Nutrition information panels (NIPs) are a part of food labels. These tell you what key nutrients the food contains and how much of each nutrient there is.
All packaged food products have food labels, except for:
- very small packets
- fresh foods like fruit and vegetables
- foods made and packaged at the point of sale – for example, bread from bakeries
- foods sold at fundraising events
- packaged water, tea, coffee, herbs and spices.
The nutrition 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 fruit and vegetables, wholegrain breads, nuts, fresh lean meats 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. For example, strawberry yoghurt must contain strawberries.
The label also has to list the amount of an ingredient if it’s mentioned in the food’s name or emphasised in its packaging. This information is in the ingredient 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 the one that was present in the largest amount when the product was manufactured. So if sugar is the first ingredient, it means that sugar is the main ingredient and the product is probably high in sugar. The ingredient listed last was present in the smallest amount.
Nutrition information panels
All nutrition information panels list 7 food components – energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. Manufacturers might decide to include other nutrients too, including fibre and calcium.
Comparing the nutrition information on different food products helps you work out the healthiest choice. The healthiest choices have lower saturated fat, lower sodium, lower sugar and higher fibre.
When you’re comparing 2 products, look at the ‘per 100 g’ or ‘per 100 ml’ information on each, rather than the ‘per serving’ information. This way you can compare the same thing on each product. The serving size can differ across brands.
Things to look out for on food labels: energy, fat, sugar and sodium
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 sodium
Manufacturers can list fat, sugar or sodium under different names depending on the ingredient used in the product. This means that these food components might seem ‘hidden’ on the ingredient list. These components might go by different names – but whatever they’re called, high fat, sugar or sodium content generally means the food is less healthy.
Fat might be listed as 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 listed as 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.
Sodium might be listed as salt, baking powder, baking soda, booster, celery salt, garlic salt, meat or yeast extract, onion salt, monosodium glutamate or MSG, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphite, sodium 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 5 stars. Generally, the more stars a food has, the healthier it is. You can use this system to compare similar products – for example, to compare different breakfast cereals or different yoghurts.
Many foods contain food additives. There are strict guidelines about the way food additives are used in foods and labelled on food products. For most packaged foods, all food additives must be shown on the ingredient 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 Food Standards Australia New Zealand – Additives.
A very small number of people are sensitive to some food additives, like 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 food intolerances.
Food allergy information
There are 10 foods that cause 90% of all food allergic reactions – wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, cow’s milk, eggs, soybeans, sesame and lupin. 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’s ingredient list for egg, you might see:
- albumin (egg)
- egg albumin
- contains egg – at the end of the ingredient list
- sugar, chocolate, eggs – in bold type in the ingredient 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 food allergy.
Double-checking nutrition and health claims
Nutrition claims on food packaging and in food advertising – like ‘low-fat’ on the front of 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 nutrition information panel.
Here are 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 nutrition 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’s low in fat or salt or 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.
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 2 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 food like bread.
These dates are usually reliable if you store foods according to the instructions on their labels.