Food labels: understanding what’s in my food

Food labels can help you take control of your health by providing you with detailed information on what’s in the food you buy. Our handy guide to reading food labels will make it easier for you to make healthy choices for you and your family.

There are four main tools used on food products in Australia:

  • Nutrition Information Panel (compulsory)

  • Ingredients list (compulsory)

  • Daily Intake Guide (voluntary)

  • Health Star Rating (voluntary).

Here’s a run-down on each.

Nutrition Information Panel

What is it?

Nutrition information panels are the detailed boxes on many food products that list the energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, sugar, dietary fibre and sodium.

The format for nutrition information panels is the same for all products and lists each nutrient per serve and per 100g (or 100mL if liquid).

How do I read it?

Here are some tips to help you understand the information on that little box of numbers!

Per Serve or Per 100g
When comparing products use the ‘per 100g’ column as serving sizes can vary but when you're looking for the amount of a nutrient the product will give you, look at the amount per serve.

Energy
When looking for snacks, try to aim for energy per serve of 600kJ or less.

Sodium
If you can, try to choose lower sodium foods. Aim for foods with less than 400mg sodium per 100g.

Fat
A general rule is to try to choose products with less than 10g of fat per 100g. Some food products, like those that have nuts and seeds will be naturally higher in healthy fats – but these are packed with benefits for your brain, heart and waistline. So if the fat content is higher you don’t need to worry as much.

Likewise cheese products are naturally higher in fat – so aim for less than 15g of fat per 100g when selecting cheeses. When comparing milks or fortified dairy free milks, aim for products with less than 2g of fat per 100g.

Sugars
A general rule of thumb for sugars is to aim for products with less than 10-15g of sugar per 100g but if a product is high in natural sugars from fruit, for instance in breakfast cereals, aim for 25g sugar or less.

Fibre
Aim for higher fibre breakfast cereals, breads, crackers, grains and pastas by comparing the fibre content in the ‘per 100g’ column. A general rule of thumb is that products with more than 3g of fibre per serve are a good fibre choice.

Ingredients list

All foods sold in Australia and New Zealand must have a list of ingredients on the label. Here are 3 things worth understanding about ingredients lists.

Order

Ingredients are listed in decending order from the most present in the food – either by weight or quantity – to the least. Water is also listed unless it's less than 5% of the product.

So, if a product ingredient list has fat, sugar or salt listed as a first, second or third ingredient, then it may contain large amounts of these ingredients. But fats, sugars and sodium can also be listed under different names and some companies will use a combination of these ingredients in their products.

Some examples...

Fat: animal oil or fat, vegetable oil or fat, butter fat, vegetable shortening, milk solids, cream, copha, chocolate, tallow, lard, ghee, dripping, suet, palm oil, sour cream.

Sugar: sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, golden syrup, corn syrup, honey, malt, molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar.

Salt: rock salt, sea salt, vegetables salt, celery salt, garlic salt, onion salt, baking soda, baking powder, sodium, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, monosodium glutamate (MSG), stock cubes, yeast extract, meat extract.

Characterising ingredients

the amount (in percentage) of the ingredient that characterises the food – for instance almond in almond milk – must also be listed.

You can see in the ingredients list below that 2.5% of Sanitarium’s Unsweetened Almond Milk is from almonds.

Unsweetened almond milk
Ingredients: Filtered water, almonds (2.5%), mineral salts (tricalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate), emulsifier (lecithin), natural flavours, salt, vegetable gum (gellan).
Contains almonds. May contain other tree nuts.

Allergens

You’ll also notice that almonds is in bold and there's a statement, ‘contains almonds’, below the ingredients list. This is because food standard laws require all common food allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, to be declared on the food label.

Percentage Daily Intake

Some food products also show the nutrients in a serve as a percentage of daily recommended nutrient intakes in thumbnail icons on the front of the product. These icons can be helpful for comparison between products, but a word of caution – they are only a rough guide as they relate to the nutrient and energy needs of an average adult and yours may be quite different!

Health Star Rating

The Health Star Rating system is a government initiative developed in consultation with health organisations, food industry and the public.

It gives you a visual snapshot of the nutrition quality of food products to make it easy for you to compare similar foods and make healthier food choices for you and your family. Basically, the more stars, the healthier the choice.

The Health Star Rating is not meant to compare different types of foods. So, for example, it is not meant to compare a yoghurt with a packet of crisps.

For more on the Health Star Rating and the rating of Sanitarium food products, read our Health Star Rating article or see our products pages for individual products.

Getting to know what’s in the foods you eat is a great way to take charge of your health. Remember, if you have any questions you can always call the manufacturer – their number is usually listed on the food packaging. And, if you have a question for us, just Ask our nutritionists.

References

  1. Australian Government Department of Health. How to understand food labels. [Internet] 2015 [updated 2015 July; cited 2016 April 21]; available from: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/eating-well/how-understand-food-labels.
  2. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Ingredients lists and percentage labelling. [Internet] 2015 [updated 2015 Dec; cited 2016 April 21]; available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/ingredients/Pages/default.aspx.

  3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Allergen labelling. [Internet] 2016 [updated May 2016; cited 2016 June 1]; available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/foodallergies/Pages/Allergen-labelling.aspx.

  4. The Health Star Rating. Health Star Rating System. [Internet] 2014 [udated Dec 2014; cited 2016 April 21]; available from: http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/Content/news-20141210

More in

People have left a thought ...

Let us know your thoughts, leave a comment ...

You might also like ...