The most common advice I give to people is to read labels before buying packaged foods. There is a lot on information printed on packages, so keep reading for some advice on how to read food labels.
What is a food label?
Food label is the term that encapsulates all the information printed on a food package. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) regulates what goes in the label of foods sold in this part of the world.
Parts of a food label
The information below can be found in FSANZ’s website (see references below).
This includes the name of the food, the name and business address of the manufacturer or distributor and the lot number. By law the food name must be a true description of what the product contains.
Nutrition and health claims
Some products contain nutrition claims such as “good source of protein” and “high in fibre” and/or health claims such as “help lower cholesterol”. There are laws that food manufacturers must follow when including these claims in packaging.
Nutrition information panel
The nutrition information panel (NIP) is what we commonly know as nutrition label. This is the table usually located at the back of a package. Depending on space, it might be located at the front, below the fold in sachets or in the box for single-serve items.
NIPs contain the average amount of energy (in kilojoules and/or kilocalories depending on the country of origin), protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a serve and in 100 grams (for solids) or millilitres (for liquids) of food. If the package contains any health claims linked to nutrients (e.g. “good source of calcium”), the NIP must also contain the average amount of that particular nutrient per serve and 100g or mL.
These include use-by and best-before dates. Use-by dates indicate the food is safe to eat by the marked date. Best-before dates indicate the window of time in which the food is at its best in terms of quality and/or nutrient content, but doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat past the marked date.
The ingredients list shows all the ingredients in descending order by weight, which means the first ingredient weighs the most in the final product.
The characterising ingredients in the food are shown with the percentage they represent in the final product.
Ingredients that can cause food allergy or intolerance need to be declared. These are: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, sesame, soy, wheat, lupin, sulphites (when >10mg per kg of food) and gluten-containing ingredients.
Food additives such as thickeners, colours and preservatives must be identified by type plus their name or number. Food additives can also cause allergies and intolerances.
Other information shown in food labels may include: total weight (for solids) or volume (for liquids), country of origin, directions for use and storage if applicable, health star rating and certifications (e.g. organic, low-GI, low-FODMAP, kosher, halal).
How to read food labels
FSANZ has a handy poster on their website called Food labels – What do they mean?. This can help you out find each bit of information in a food package.
However, my goal with this article is to give you tips on how to use the information in food labels to choose better foods.
- Read the product description carefully. For example, if the product says “-flavoured” (e.g. “chicken-flavoured stock”), chances are it doesn’t contain the actual ingredient that precedes that word. Same for words such as “-style” (e.g. “Greek-style yoghurt”).
- Don’t rely on the product description alone. For example, some tuna cans read “tuna with olive oil” but they contain other cheaper oils, often in larger quantities than olive oil.
- In general, don’t trust nutrition and health claims. Rely more on ingredients lists and NIPs.
- When reading NIPs, check that the serve size is realistic. Some manufacturers choose serve sizes to manipulate the number of serves per package or the average amount of energy/nutrients per serve. Examples of unrealistic portion sizes are 1 biscuit (most people eat at least 2) or 1 slice of bread (most people use 2 slices of bread in a sandwich).
- When comparing similar products, use the average nutrient quantity per 100g or mL. This is because serve sizes often vary between products and brands.
- Don’t rely on energy content alone. Low calorie foods are not inherently healthy.
- Many foods with best-before dates will be good to eat past those dates. Foods close to their best-before dates are sold with heavy discounts, so take advantage of this and save some money.
- Always read the ingredients list, especially if you have allergies or intolerances.
- Unless you’re buying a sweetener, avoid foods that have sugar as one of the first few ingredients. Note that some manufacturers include different kinds of sugar so that they can locate them further down below the ingredients list.
- As a general rule, fewer ingredients is better. Little or no additives is better, especially artificial colours and flavours.
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Allergen labelling 2020 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/Pages/Allergen-labelling-.aspx.].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Food additive labelling 2019 [Available from: target=”_blank”>https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/Pages/Labelling-of-food-additives.aspx.].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Ingredient lists and percentage labelling 2015 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/ingredients/Pages/default.aspx.].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Nutrition content claims and health claims 2016 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/nutrition/Pages/default.aspx.].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Nutrition information panels 2015 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/panels/Pages/default.aspx].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Truth in labelling, weights and measures and legibility 2017 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/truth/Pages/default.aspx.].
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Use by and best before dates 2015 [Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/dates/Pages/default.aspx.].