What you read on the front of packaged food may be misleading and it’s not until you flip the item over to inspect the ingredients list that you discover the truth. Chemical names, scientific jargon, E-numbers and other mystery substances may be hidden within the food you eat. Then, there’s the bold health claims to navigate. It can get a bit much when all you want is something decent to eat for you and your family.
Here we take a look at how to read a nutrition label in Australia and ultimately, how to make a healthy choice with the food you eat. It’s time to take the overwhelm out of your next shopping trip.
How To Make Healthy Food Choices
In a perfect world, everyone would eat fresh, unprocessed foods every day. The food we eat should be ethically made and sourced locally. In my view, this way of eating whole foods as naturally as possible is certainly a goal which we can collectively work towards. However, our modern pace in this world doesn’t always allow for this kind of virtuous lifestyle. Sometimes we need to cut corners and rely on the convenience of packaged foods to get us through a busy week.
But is it possible to make healthy food choices when it comes to packaged foods?
I think the answer is yes, as long as you choose mindfully and can understand a food label. Get to know what’s in the food you eat and you’ll no longer be baffled by the maze of ingredients. Also, you’ll be empowered to trust yourself each time you go food shopping. The ‘health claims’ on certain foods won’t suck you in. And you can confidently flip over any food product to read the label.
In truth, whatever else is written on the package is just noise.
So here’s a breakdown of what’s on a nutrition label and what you should pay attention to as a discerning health-conscious consumer.
What Is a Nutrition Label?
Firstly, it helps to know what a food label is and how to spot it on any packaged food item. A food label is sometimes referred to as a nutrition label, yet it has other information listed as well. It conveys all the information about the food contained within.
A nutrition label is typically on the reverse side of the box, bottle, package or can you’ve purchased. It may contain various information, including ingredients, food allergy warnings, macronutrient data and health claims.
The governing body for food labelling in Australia is Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). This organisation is in charge of protecting public health by ensuring food is safe to eat with correct labelling. FSANZ sets the standard for what information must be included on any food and nutrition label.
What To Look For On A Nutrition Label
With so much information squeezed into one little square, how do you know what’s the most important? The main things to look out for include:
- Macronutrient quantities
- Allergen warnings
- Added sugar and preservatives
- Storage instructions
How To Read An Ingredients List
Ingredients must be listed in packaged food in descending order. Essentially, this means that the first ingredient listed contributes the largest proportion of the total food item. Equally, the last ingredient listed is the smallest. For instance, when you read an ingredients list that says: sugar, butter, flour, and salt - you know that what you’re eating has sugar as the first and main ingredient, with salt as the least prevalent.
Other than knowing what goes into shortbread, for instance, it helps to understand how much of each ingredient has been combined to make the food you’re eating. This becomes especially important when considering the health claims that any given product is making.
Now, if the shortbread you have contains compound ingredients, such as chocolate chips, it will be labelled in parentheses in a similar order of ingoing weight. Here, all ingredients which make up the compound ingredient must be declared, if it exceeds 5% of the final food. An important distinction, however, is if a known allergen is included in the compound ingredient - it must be declared despite how minuscule the amount may be.
Nutrition Information Panels
Nutrition information panels are the specific details on the average quantity of energy (kilojoules) that’s made up of the following nutrients:
- Other trace ingredients
A nutrition information panel will also include information about another ingredient if a particular health claim has been made. For instance, if the label claims this food is a good source of calcium, then the amount of calcium in the food must be clearly shown on the panel.
The nutritional label must be displayed in a standard format that includes the total amounts and a per serving amount. The serving size on a food label is determined by the food industry, which varies between different products. Looking at the serving or ‘quantity per 100g or 100ml’ part of the label is the best way to get an idea of the nutrition available, as an individual serving.
The energy value is written in kilojoules or calories. This amount is a representation of the total amount of kilojoules that is released when this particular food is used by the body. Protein, fat, carbohydrates, fibre and even alcohol provide energy.
Almost all packaged foods must carry labels that show the percentage of key ingredients in the food. This means you can easily read the label and compare similar products. An example of this would be orange and mango fruit juice, where the label could say 10% orange juice and 5% mango juice. You get a better idea of what’s exactly in the product you’re buying and can be more discerning with other comparable products that have a similar front label. In this way, not all mango and orange fruit juices are created equal!
This is one part of a label worth noticing. In line with the World Health Organisation’s recommendations on sugar in foods, FSANZ has worked to improve the current sugar labelling standards. WHO recommends that free or added sugars do not exceed 10% of a person’s daily energy intake. In terms of daily consumption, this equates to approximately 12 teaspoons of sugar for a healthy adult. As of May 2022, the food code as set out by FSANZ now stipulates that the total amount of sugars must be included on a food label in Australia and New Zealand.
Importantly, the total sugar amount includes sugar that is naturally present in the food, as well as what’s been added. The code also outlines specific requirements for foods that make claims about sugar. For instance, foods labelled as ‘low sugar’ must not have more than 2.5 g of sugar per 100ml of liquids or 5 g per 100g of solid food.
The ongoing review of food labelling is good news for us as consumers. As food and nutrition governing bodies crack down on the food industry and labelling becomes more transparent, we can make better, healthier choices as a result.
As mentioned earlier, no matter how small an ingredient is, if it’s a known allergen, it must be labelled on packaged foods. Declaring foods such as wheat, dairy, eggs and shellfish is an important part of food labelling. This is because some people can be severely allergic to certain foods. In some cases anaphylaxis or other immune reactions are possible.
Usually, allergenic foods will be listed in the ingredients list using the exact name, and in bolded text. New rules in the food industry have been rolled out which require food manufacturers to clearly state the allergen in plain English. Individual tree nuts, grains and seafood products must also be declared separately. Common foods that must be declared include wheat, oats, rye, barley, soy, fish, crustaceans, egg, milk, lupin, peanut, sesame and sulphites.
Similarly, if a food contains bee products, such as honey, pollen or propolis, it must be labelled with an advisory statement.
Precautionary Allergen Labelling
In other instances, you’ll see ‘may contain’, ‘may be present’ or ‘traces of’ statements on food labels. This indicates there may be possible contamination or unintended presence of any allergenic foods due to the manufacturing process. There’s no strict code requirement for these statements and it’s up to the individual food company to make these declarations on their own accord.
Identifying additives in food is an important part of interpreting a food and nutrition label. Additives are a sometimes necessary part of commercial food processing, so they can be difficult to avoid entirely. Food additives include preservatives, flavourings, colourings, glazing agents, thickeners, emulsifiers and sweeteners.
If you’re sensitive to preservatives or chemical additives it pays to know what they look like on a food label. There are some usual suspects that can cause major health issues, and ideally are best avoided. When I read a label, I scan for these culprits and often throw the package back onto the shelf if I see these listed:
- 100’s - colours
- 200’s - preservatives
- 600’s - MSG
- 900’s - artificial sweeteners
Check out this handy food additives guide you can carry with you while you fill your shopping basket.
In most cases, additives will be clearly listed in the ingredients, but sometimes they’re not. If an additive is less than 5% of the total food compound and it doesn’t impact the texture or flavour of the final product, it isn’t always listed. Additives that are also common allergens must be declared. Sulphites, for example, must be included when it exceeds 10 mg per kg of food.
On a food label, additives are written by their chemical name and can include numbers. Each food additive is categorised into groups with numbers or letters affixed to its title. The class indicates what the food additive does and why it needs to be there in the first place.
Health Claims on Nutrition Labels
Packaged foods are notorious for making health claims. Thankfully, these days any claim made by a manufacturer must be supported by evidence and clearly stated on the label. Understanding a health or nutrition claim is another important way to ensure you’re making healthy food choices. Here are a few well-touted health claims you’ll see on packaged foods, and my response to them.
Sure, it’s got no table sugar, but I bet it still contains heaps of natural sugar. Always check the ingredients.
Cool, but usually these products still contain fat, and perhaps an inflammatory trans-fat or Frankenstein-fat from a lab.
Nice try, to be labelled fat-free, it just needs to have less than 0.15% fat. Then check the sugar content to make sure the difference isn’t sneakily made up here.
Ultimately, just read the nutrition label on the back and compare it to what it’s ‘selling’ on the front. Does it match up? Or are you being duped?
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