Food Standards Australia and New Zealand [FSANZ] says there should be 12 components to a food label – including dates, ingredients, vitamins, certain allergens, instructions for storage and preparation, and advisory and warning statements - with the nutrition information panel [NIP] and the ingredients list being the most important information for consumers.
Reading food labels helps ensure you are eating the recommended amount of nutrients and fibre. It’s easy to be mislead due to labelling tricks as not all brown bread contain enough fibre and some manufactures use colouring to make foods look more appealing.
In order for a food label claim a product is gluten free, low GI or high-fibre, the product has to meet strict criteria set by the government however it is still possible to be mislead.
Here are some tips on how to read food and nutritional labels:
Considered the most valuable part of the label, this panel shows the average amount of energy – measured in kilojoules - protein, fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium in a product. It also shows the size of a standard serving and which nutrients are in that serving and in 100 grams [or 100 ml] of the food so consumers can compare with other options.
“The amount of any other nutrient or substance about which a nutrition content or health claim is made must also be shown,” says the FSANZ. For example, the amount of calcium must be shown if a claim about calcium is made.
“Food labels must show the percentage of key or characterising ingredients or components in the food,” says FSANZ.
In a strawberry yoghurt, the characterising ingredient is strawberry so the ingredient list would need to state exactly how much strawberry is actually in it.
Food labels must show the name of the food, the business address and the lot identification of the food.
The FSANZ states that brands need to ensure the food’s name or description reflects its true nature. For example, if a strawberry yoghurt contains strawberry flavouring rather than real fruit, it needs to be called strawberry-flavoured yoghurt.
Allergy and intolerance information
Given some food ingredients and substances can cause severe allergic reactions, peanuts, tree nuts – like cashews, almonds and walnuts – fish, milk, eggs, soybeans and wheat must be declared.
Cereals containing gluten also need to be declared if the sulphite count exceeds 10 milligrams per kilogram.
A used-by date indicates that the food should be eaten before a certain date for health and safety reasons, while a best-before date is required if a food has a shelf life is less than two years. The FSANZ says that while it is safe to eat a food after its best-before date, it may have lost quality and nutritional value.
A very important part of the food label, the ingredients must be listed in descending order by ingoing weight.
So, if an ingredient is listed near the start of the list, the food contains more of this ingredient than the other ingredients lower down the list.
It’s worth keeping in mind that more ingredients can indicate that food is has been highly processed.
Additives, such as thickeners, must also be identified in this list followed by their additive name or number.
Weights and measures
Under Australian law, the correct weight and measurement information must be stated on all food labels. This is strictly governed by a national measurement institute, who ensure labels are not false or misleading.
In a lot of packaged foods, additives are added to ensure the food is preserved safely and to enhance the look and taste of the product.
Additives are identified in ingredient list by the class name [eg thickener or colour] followed by the food additive name or number.
The FSANZ has a full list of food additive names and code numbers on their website.
Directions for use and storage
The FSANZ advise to follow these instructions on the food label in order for food to keep until its best-before or used-by date.
Label requirements, including warnings, must be in English and clearly legible.
Country of origin
Al package food and some unpackaged food must state where the food comes from.
Nutrition and health claims
According to the New South Wales Food Authority, health claims refer to a relationship between a food and it's health benefits, and are only permitted on foods that meet the nutrient profiling scoring criterion, meaning claims are restricted to foods which may support overall health. Nutrition content claims are claims about the content of certain nutrients or substances in a food, such as 'low in fat'.
Consumers need to know every ingredient in the products they are buying to make informed choices. Look for wholegrain cereals and breads with at least four grams of fibre and, according to the National Diabetes Services Scheme, where possible, choose products with ‘reduced’ or ‘no added’ salt. A low-salt food has less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
Total fat includes all polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and tans fats in a product. The NDSS also recommends considering both the amount and type of fat in a fat, and opting for products with the least amount of saturated fat per 100g.
In Australia, we also have The Health Star Rating [HSR] system, a front-of-pack labelling system that aims to ‘to ‘provide convenient, relevant and readily understood nutrition information and/or guidance on food packs to assist consumers to make informed food purchases and healthier eating choices’.
The HSR that rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged foods and gives it a rating from ½ a star to five stars however health experts have warned it is still imperative to read food labels and nutritional panels in order to make the healthiest choices for your family.