Food labelling – lets make them a little easier to read

Food labelling can be one of the most confusing parts of following a nutritious diet.  So many people out there telling you to eat this or don’t eat that you just don’t know where to begin. 

The following aims to explain and give you tips on how to choose the right foods when following a healthy diet.  I have tried to cram pages and pages of information into just a couple of pages for your easy reading.

 What information appears on food packaging? To understand food labelling you need to understand what you are looking at when you pick up a food product.  The above diagram outlines the specific areas you may or may not notice that are mandatory for manufacturers to follow when creating packaging.

Ingredients List:  Ingredients are listed from biggest to smallest amount.  If a food only makes up 5% of the ingredients it is not required to be listed.  On some ingredients list you may see a percentage in brackets next to the ingredient eg. Orange (15%) which is informing you what percentage of your orange cake is orange.  If it says orange flavoured then you may not find real oranges in the ingredients list.

If packaging specifies a picture of an orange or reference then that food must be declared on the packaging as an ingredient.

Nutrition Information Panel: Identifies the quantity of nutrients a food contains per serve.  When comparing nutrients (such as carbohydrates, sugar, fat, salt (sodium)) in different products it is recommended you use the 100g/100ml column. This is because per serve sizes may vary between manufacturers.

Since labelling laws were introduced in 2003, the majority of products must have a nutrition information panel however you will find exceptions for products such as – very small packages (herbs, salt, tea and coffee), single ingredient foods (fruit, vegetables, water, vinegar), food sold at fundraising events, food sold unpackaged, food made and packaged at the point of sale (Better Health Channel, food labels1).

Percentage labelling: Some products may list the percentage daily intake on their packaging.  For instance salt (sodium) is 5% of your daily intake.   This information refers to how much an average adult male should eat in one day and will need to be reduced for women or children.

Nutrition claims: Manufacturers are not able to make claims that their food is low in fat, high in fibre, low in salt unless they meet particular criteria. 

As a guide here are a few simple label reading tips for you to follow when choosing healthy food and drink options. Look for the following: Saturated Fat = 3g of fat or less per 100g / Total Fat = 10g or less per 100g

 *Total Fat for milk, yoghurt, ice-cream = less than 2g per 100g

* Total Fat for cheese = less than 15g per 100g

 Sodium (Salt) = 120mg of or less per 100g (is best) / = 400g or less are good options

 Sugar = 15g or less

Fibre = 3g or more per serve

 Click here for a great summary on how to understand food labels with regard to total fat, fibre, sugar, sodium (salt) and also gives you a brief overview of alternate names for the above categories.

 Please note: even if a product says they are low in salt it could still be high in fat so make sure you read everything on the nutrition information panel.

 HIGHLY RECOMMEND TO PRINT THE ABOVE AND HAVE AT HOME UNTIL YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR.

Need some extra assistance with food labels?  There is a fantastic app called Foodswitch.  This app easily interprets nutrition information panel for you by  using a traffic light colour coded system to tell you whether a food contains high/medium/low total fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, all by simply scanning the barcode on a packaged food.  If you are gluten intolerant there is also a mode for this so you can tell whether a food has gluten.

 Watch out for misleading claims – here are some you may come across:

  • The term ‘light’ or ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is low in fat or energy. The term ‘light’ may refer to the texture, colour or taste of the product. The characteristic that makes the food ‘light’ must be stated on the label.
  • The claims ‘no cholesterol’, ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’ on foods derived from plants, like margarine and oil, are meaningless because all plant foods contain virtually no cholesterol. However, some can be high in fat and can contribute to weight gain if used too generously.
  • If an item claims to be 93 per cent fat free, it actually contains 7 per cent fat, but it looks so much better the other way.
  • ‘Baked not fried’ sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat – check the nutrition information panel to be sure.
  • ‘Fresh’ actually means the product hasn’t been preserved by freezing, canning, high-temperature or chemical treatment. However, it may have been refrigerated and spent time in processing and transport. (Better Health Channel, Food Labels1)

 Allergy statement: Foods containing crustaceans, tree nuts, fish, eggs, soybeans, milk, peanuts, sesame seeds and their products along with gluten and sulphites (in an ingredient or compound ingredient) must be declared on the label whether big or small amounts and must appear in the ingredients list or in a separate advisory statement.

You may also find a warning from manufacturers if they know their product may inadvertently have these ingredients because of harvesting, storage or processing equipment. For instance ‘may include traces of nuts’.

Separate advisory statements are required to alert consumers of the possible health risk of the ingredient and will appear as the following.

  • Aspartame = ‘contains phenylalanine’
  • Added caffeine in cola drinks = ‘contains caffeine’
  • Guarana = ‘contains caffeine’
  • Quinine = ‘contains quinine’
  • Unpasturised egg products = ‘unpasturised’

 Food Additives: All additives must have a use, approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and used in the smallest of quantities. Additives are used to improve flavour, quality or appearance of a food.

You will find additives in the ingredients list according to class followed by chemical name/number.

For example – emulsifier (lecithin), flavour enhancer (621)

Country of origin: All packaged food, some unpackaged, must declare where the food comes from.  For instance ‘product of Australia’ means that the majority of the ingredients is from here and the majority of processing should be here too.

‘Made in Australia’ can only be stated if the food has been considerably changed or processed here and 50% of the cost of production was incurred here.

Food-recall information: Packaging must include manufacturers/suppliers name and business address, lot and batch number (or date coding) in the case of food recalls.

Date Mark: These are to inform us of the products shelf life.  All food with a life of less than 2 years must be marked. 

Use by date = foods MUST be eaten or thrown away by this date because after this time they may be unsafe to be eaten as the nutrients may become unstable or a build-up of bacteria may follow.

Best before date = foods are still safe to eat past this date but ensure they are not damaged, deteriorated or perished.  This title indicates that this product may have lost its quality and as long as stored correctly these products will keep their colour, taste texture and flavour.

Name and Description of food: All food products must be given a name that is either prescribed by the food standards code or describes the nature of the food.  These names must be exact and no mislead the consumer.

Storage requirements:  Follow any storage instructions to ensure your food is safely kept.  Terms such as ‘keep refrigerated’, ‘Store in a cool, dark place’ may appear on packaging.  Manufacturers must also provide preparation details on packaging if specific preparation must be followed to ensure the product remains safe.

Here are some really simple food shopping tips provided by the Eat for Health website.  Some of these were mentioned in my back to basics information sheet last week.

Hopefully you feel that the above information clarifies some of the questions you have.

If I suggest you take anything from this information sheet it is the section on the Nutrition Information Panel and I highly recommend you print the link off until you have an understanding of what you are looking for.

If I have left anything out, you would like to know more information or clarification, please email me at catherine@wall2wallfitness.com.au and I would be happy to assist.

 References for more information:

  1. http://www.healthtranslations.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Food_labels_explained 
  2. http://www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au/consumers/food-labels/label-facts/how-to-use-a-food-label/