Low-GI, 98% fat-free, all natural – what does it all really mean? 12 expert tips for using food labels to make healthy choices.
Walking into a supermarket can be overwhelming – so many food products to choose from, so many claims being made, so much information on the labels. But how do you make sense of it all? Research shows shoppers regularly look at food labels for a number of different reasons. It may be because they or a family member have an allergy or intolerance to a food or additive. They may want to avoid high-fat foods, or to avoid food additives or genetically modified foods. Whatever the reason, it is important to know what to look for and how to decipher this information.
1. Knowing the rules
Food labelling standards are regulated by the people at Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). They decide when nutritional information must be provided and the way it must be presented. On a food label there are three key pieces of nutrition information you need to look at - the nutrition claims, the ingredients list and the nutrition information panel (NIP).
The Food Standards people also regulate directions for use and storage, use-by or best-before dates, and country-of-origin and allergy statements. So the manufacturers must stick to the FSANZ rules when they're labelling foods, but it's still up to you to make sense of the information. The following step-by-step guide takes you through a typical label and shows you what's really in that food.
See 'Interpreting a food label' for an example of a typical label, which we refer to throughout this article.
2. Understanding the nutrition claims
They're those brightly coloured words that scream "fat free" and "high fibre" in the supermarket and make you choose one product over another. But note the word "claim" and always look at the whole story. The regulatory officials have set down certain rules for making these claims but that doesn't stop a food manufacturer emphasising one fact over other important ones... Here's what the basic claims need to mean according to the rules.
Reduced fat: the reduced fat version of a food must not contain more than 75% of the total fat content of the regular product.
Low fat: the food must contain 3g or less of total fat per 100g of the food, or 1.5g total fat per 100ml of liquid food.
Fat free: the food must contain 0.15g or less of total fat per 100g.
Reduced in saturated fat: the food must contain 75% or less of the saturated fat content of the regular food product.
Cholesterol free: the food must contain no more than 3mg of cholesterol per 100ml of the food.
Low in sugar: the food must contain no more than 5g of total sugars per 100g of the food, or no more than 2.5g of total sugars per 100g of liquid food.
High in fibre: the food must contain at least 3g of dietary fibre per serve.
Low in salt: the food must contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g of the food.
Reduced salt: the food must not contain more than 75% of the sodium content of the regular food product.
The key to interpreting these claims is to put them into perspective: remember a product may very well be "low in fat" but the food still needs flavour, which may be added in the form of sugar – so you won't be saving many kilojoules there. And you wouldn't expect cholesterol, which is only found in animal products, to be in a vegetable product, so a "cholesterol free" claim on a vegetable oil label is pointless even if true.
When "cholesterol free" is significant, you also need to consider the amount of total fat, saturated fat and trans fat in the product. This is where the ingredients list and nutrition information panel (NIP) will help.
Watch out for...
Baked not fried Fried foods aren't the best option as they tend to be high in total fat, saturated fat and trans fat, but baked products may not be that much healthier either. Many "baked not fried" food products have fat added before baking to compensate for not being fried. So, be wary – baked foods can contain the same amount of kilojoules and fat as fried foods. The words "baked not fried" are meaningless in a nutritional sense: you need to check the total and saturated fat content per 100g and compare it to other products.
No added sugar Sugar may not have been added to the product, but that doesn't mean the product is sugar-free. Dried fruit, honey and fruit juices will have a high natural sugar content so check the nutritional information panel (NIP).
3. Decoding the ingredients list
The ingredient at the start of the list is what there is most of in the product, with the remaining ingredients being listed in descending order of weight. In the example at right, cereal is listed first so it is the main ingredient in this product, followed by wheat gluten and then sugar.
If sugar, fat or salt appear in the first three ingredients, the product is likely to be high in either sugar, fat or salt, so it is probably not the best choice. Compare other products to get the best product for you.
Look out for other names for sugar, fat and salt on labels:
Sugar is also called or is a constituent of sucrose; fructose; maltose; glucose; dextrose; lactose; honey; golden syrup; treacle; corn syrup; fruit-juice concentrate; malt; malt extract; molasses; palm sugar.
Salt is also known as or present in baking soda; baking powder; sodium; sodium bicarbonate; monosodium glutamate; rock salt; vegetable salt; soy sauce; chicken salt; sea salt; vegetable salt; celery salt; garlic salt; stock cubes; sodium sorbate; sodium nitrate.
Fat is also found in butter; margarine; animal fat; vegetable oil/fat; shortening; dripping; ghee; lard; palm oil; tallow; suet; copha; coconut; coconut oil; coconut cream; butterfat; full cream milk solids; chocolate; hydrogenated oil/fat.
In this list, percentages are shown in brackets after the key ingredients - the ones mentioned in the name of the food or emphasised on the label in the form of words, pictures or graphics. In the honey and almond breakfast cereal example, 52% of the food is cereal (rice, wheat and corn), 5% is honey and 4% of the final product is almonds.
The ingredients list will also show the food additives in the product. According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) a food additive is "a substance that is not normally consumed as a food in itself or used as an ingredient of a food, but is intentionally added to achieve a specific technological function".
Many food additives have complex and multiple names so a short code is used to simplify matters. A full list of food additives and code numbers can be found at FSANZ.
On a label, food additives can easily be identified in the ingredients list. It will show what kind of additive it is (such as colour or acidity regulator) followed by its name or code number in brackets. This is shown on the food label.
Why add food additives?
Every class of food additives has a different function or activity.
Acidity regulators help to maintain the acidity level in the food - important for taste as well as slowing the growth of microorganisms.
Antioxidants help to prevent damage to foods when exposed to oxygen, for example the rancid flavours in fats and oils.
Bulking agents contribute to the volume of food.
Colourings enhance the colour of a food.
Emulsifiers prevent mixtures of oil and water from separating.
Gelling agents modify the texture of foods and help them to set.
Humectants reduce moisture loss in food, preventing drying out.
Preservatives prevent spoilage of food by retarding microorganisms.
Thickeners increase the consistency of foods.
For a full list of food additives, classes and codes, visit FSANZ.
4. Decoding allergy information
Because serious allergic reactions known as anaphylaxis (see article Itching to know: All about food allergies and intolerances) can occur in sensitive people, food labelling laws say common allergens contained in a food product must be declared on the label. Foods such as peanuts, tree nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts), crustacea, fish, milk, eggs, sesame seeds and soy beans, and their products may cause allergic reactions and must be identified on the pack no matter how little there is in the product.
Cereals and other products containing gluten from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt need to show this information on labels for people with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease.
Foods containing sulphites must be labelled if they contain more than 10mg/kg or more of added sulphites, as this is the level believed to cause asthma attacks in asthmatics.
A statement appears on a pack if the allergen is an ingredient, a food additive, a component of a food additive or a processing aid, usually under the ingredients list (see food label at right). Otherwise the allergens might be highlighted in bold and a statement such as "Contains gluten-containing cereal and almond as indicated in bold type" will appear above the ingredients list on the product.
Words such as "may contain traces of nuts" or "product has been produced on machines that process milk" are included if there is a possibility a food product may be contaminated in any way with an allergen.
These "may contain" statements are not very useful for people with allergies, who need specific information and may end up avoiding food that is in fact perfectly safe or taking risks eating food that isn't. If in doubt about the suitability of a product, call the manufacturer.
What to look for if you have a food allergy or intolerance
Milk allergy: Look out for butter, buttermilk, casein, caseinate, cheese, cream, créme frâche, cows or goats' milk, ghee, milk powder, whey. Milk products may turn up in unexpected places - bakery foods are sometimes glazed with egg or milk and casein can be used as a binder in meat products, "restructured" salmon and imitation seafood (like surimi).
Gluten intolerance: Keep an eye out for wheat, semolina, kumut, spelt, oat, barley, malt, flour, triticale.
5. Knowing the country of origin
Packaged food products and some unpackaged foods sold in Australia must state the country where the food was made or produced. This could just be identifying where the product was packaged for retail sale. If this is the case, the label needs to show any ingredients that are imported or if the ingredients are a combination of local and imported ones.
"Product of Australia" on a label means a product is made in Australia from Australian ingredients, as opposed to "Made in Australia", which means it is made in Australia with imported ingredients.
6. Deciphering dates and storage directions
Foods labelled with a specific "use-by" date should not be consumed after this date due to health and safety risks such as food poisoning. An exception to the date marking laws is bread, which can be labelled with a "baked on" or "baked for" date, as long as it has a shelf life of less than seven days.
A "best before" date appears on products that will not perish immediately or cause health and safety problems if eaten (as a product with a use-by date would) but which will deteriorate nutrition- and quality-wise after this date. Foods that have a shelf-life of less than two years are required to have a "best before" date on the label.
7. Nutting out the nutrition information
The nutrition information panel (NIP) is usually found on the back or side of a pack. An example of a typical nutrition information panel is shown at right.
To simplify things, a standard format is used: at minimum you'll see energy in kilojoules, protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugar and sodium. Trans fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat only need to be included in the nutrition information panel if a nutrition claim related to them is made, for example "high in mono-unsaturated fat".
If a claim is made that a food is "high in calcium" or is a "source of calcium", it needs to display the calcium content in the NIP and this will be positioned underneath sodium.
It is also a requirement for manufacturers to include the percentage a serve of the food contributes to the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for calcium. For example, a 30g serve of the honey and almond breakfast cereal profiled (see image at right) will add 20% to recommended daily calcium intake.
It is also standard format to have both a "per serve" column and a "per 100g" or "per 100ml" of the food or liquid column. The "per 100g or 100ml" column can be used to compare other similar products, while the per serve column can be used to analyse your own serving size (often we eat more than the recommended serving size, so this is a very handy feature).
Each label must indicate the number of servings per pack, as well as the serving size, which is decided by the manufacturers. Always check the serving size and the number of servings per pack, as some foods such as flavoured milk in cartons or 200g tubs of yoghurt actually contain two or more servings (and we're usually happy to drink or eat the lot!).
8. Interpreting a food label
We are using the example of a typical commercially available flake breakfast cereal with honey and almonds added to illustrate the features generally found on a label (see 'Interpreting a food label' image).
9. Making sense of daily intakes
The latest food labelling to hit the shelves is percentage of daily intake or %DI that is seen on breakfast cereals, snack foods and some takeaway food products. On the front of some food packages the %DI appears as a row of small curved boxes called thumbnails and is a graphical representation of how much of a particular food contributes to your total day's intake.
Within the thumbnails are numbers and percentages which are based on a set of reference values for the acceptable daily intakes of a variety of nutrients (protein, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fibre and sodium) as well as energy. As the %DI labelling is a voluntary scheme, some foods display only one DI thumbnail for energy (kJ), other foods include all the reference nutrients plus some vitamins and minerals, while others don't use the system at all.
The %DI values are based on an average adult's daily requirement of 8700kJ (see image), however your daily intake requirements may be higher or lower depending on your energy needs. For example, if you are a child or female or overweight, you will need to consume fewer kilojoules and the numbers given won't necessarily apply to you. Therefore %DI should be used only as a guide to help you make informed decisions about the food you eat.
Daily intake values
Energy and nutrients
Daily intake value
Recommended dietary intakes
Commonly called RDIs, these are the average daily dietary intake levels sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals. The RDIs differ depending on your age and whether you're male or female.
10. Figuring out the other symbols
Studies show that when grocery shopping, people decide on what foods to buy within a matter of seconds. Being aware of this, food manufacturers often use brightly coloured words and logos as a tool to grab your attention, giving you one more reason to pick their product over others on the shelf. Some logos are certified by reputable organisations and help make product choices for particular situations a lot easier.
Heart Foundation Tick
The Tick is a symbol used by the National Heart Foundation of Australia to distinguish healthier foods within a particular food category. To qualify for the Tick, foods must pass independent tests and meet strict criteria for saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, kilojoules and fibre, which vary between food categories (i.e. the criteria for breakfast cereals is different from the criteria for meat pies). The Tick program makes it quick and easy to identify healthy food products, however not all healthy food options carry the Tick as the application for the Tick incurs a fee.
If your favourite food doesn't feature the Tick logo, compare the nutrition information to a similar product that does - it may still be a good option. It's also important to remember that just because a product features the Tick, it doesn't mean you can eat as much as you want as often as you like. Some categories of foods, such as meat pies, will always be a "sometimes" food. For more information, visit the Heart Foundation or call 1300 362 787.
Glycemic Index Symbol
Like the Tick program, the GI Symbol highlights "healthier" food products within a particular food category with foods carrying a GI Symbol and the food's GI value. To obtain a 12-month licence for the Symbol, food products must contain at least 10g of carbohydrate per serve, have had their GI determined by Sydney University Glycemic Index Research Service (SUGiRS) or another approved laboratory and have a nutritional composition that meets the required nutrient criteria for the appropriate food category. Foods with a high, intermediate and low GI can all register for the symbol.
Australian Certified Organic
There are a number of symbols that can be used for certifying organic products grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals or fertilisers and which are free of genetically modified ingredients. However, the most common symbol seen on food labels is the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) logo.
The Coeliac Society of Australia
Gluten-free products can be endorsed by The Coeliac Society of Australia. In order to obtain the endorsement, food products must contain no detectable gluten as determined by scientific testing. People with coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance can easily identify gluten-free products with this logo.
Food products are given the fair-trading "seal of approval" when they feature the FAIRTRADE Label. Items that carry this logo meet internationally approved standards for FAIRTRADE and it provides a guarantee to consumers that their purchase will benefit producers and their families, as well as the surrounding communities in developing countries where those foods originate.
The Fairtrade guarantee to consumers is backed by a certification and trade audit system that applies to all companies in the supply chain including producers, importers and licensees who apply the Fairtrade Label to packaged foods and then sell them into the market place.
11. Grasping genetically modified foods
Genetically modified (GM) foods come from crops and other food sources derived or developed from an organism that has been modified by a technique called gene technology. The procedure allows food producers to alter characteristics of a food crop by introducing genes from another source. For example, a corn plant that has a gene introduced which makes it more resistant to insect attack has been genetically modified.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for approving the use of GM foods. Within Australia, the GM-approved crops include cotton, corn, canola, soy bean, sugar beet and potato. Some packaged foods sold in Australia contain GM ingredients derived from these crops, but there are no fresh GM vegetables, fruit, meat, fish or other agricultural products sold in Australia.
In December 2001, labelling requirements for GM food came into play and all foods containing GM foods or ingredients are now required to identify the food or ingredient that is genetically modified.
This is an example of the ingredients list on the packaging of a genetically modified soy flour product: Soy Protein Isolate (genetically modified), Maltodextrin, Vegetable Oil, Food Acid (332), Emulsifier (471), Vegetable Gum (407), Water Added.
There are some exemptions from this labelling rule, such as foods that have been so refined there is no presence of residual genetic material or protein of the source plant in the final product. GM flavourings are not required to be labelled as such, as they appear in minute amounts.
Finally, products prepared from GM foods and ingredients that are sold unlabelled for immediate consumption at the point of sale, such as restaurants, hotels and takeaway outlets, are not required to label their GM food products.
12. Simplifying the whole label-reading experience
Unless you have lots of time and can shop when most of the rest of the population is doing something else (think between 3am and 9am on a weekday), label-reading can be difficult to do effectively in a supermarket aisle.
A good idea is to focus on a single aspect of the label each time you shop, and build up your knowledge slowly. For example, compare the fat content of two breakfast cereal possibilities on one trip, then compare the sugar content next time the cereal runs out.
Do your research about the particular ingredient or food component before you head out to the shops, and jot down a few notes about ideal amounts and what else to look for. Keep a little notebook to take to the shops each time and before you know it, you'll have a personalised label guide to use whenever you notice a new product or need to buy an item you wouldn't normally use.
Another approach is to buy two similar products and do the comparison in the comfort of your own home, without supermarket-aisle pressure. Get your friends and family in on the act as well, then compare notes.
If you're particularly keen to get expert advice, you can always arrange for a consultation with a dietitian in a supermarket so he or she can give you some real hands-on label-reading advice. This is especially helpful if you or someone you're shopping for has a food-sensitive health problem such as coeliac disease or diabetes.
All of the information you need to make healthy shopping choices is on the label – it's just a matter of knowing how to decode it! Crack this code and you'll discover the truth about the food you eat.
Labelling rules don't apply to:
Loose fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, and loose nuts.
Packaged whole or freshly cut fruit and vegetables.
Food made and packaged on the premises at which it is sold, such as food from bakeries.
Food packaged in front of the customer, such as at a deli.
Food delivered at a customer's request - pizza is a great example.
Food sold at fund-raising events for charity purposes, such as at a school fete.
Individual serve packs that are sold inside a bigger package, such as variety packs of nuts, although the nutrition information panel must be on the outer package.
Food items smaller than 100 square centimetres (the size of a large packet of chewing gum).
Foods with minimal nutritional value, such as herbs, spices, tea and coffee.
HFG tip: Investing in a magnifying glass to carry in your shopping bag is a good idea. It will instantly make seeing what's actually on the label much easier, so understanding what's written there will be the only challenge.