How to read food labels

Food labels can seem like another language. Here’s how to read them and make informed choices.

Mature woman reading the food labels on cans of food

Trying to understand food labels can be pretty daunting. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the information you see on packets, jars and cans in the supermarket. Thankfully, there are a few key pieces of information that can help you to quickly make healthy and informed choices.

Nutrition content claims – what’s allowed?
The first thing to remember is that food manufacturers want you to buy their products. They invest huge amounts of time and money in marketing their brands. A “fat free” product may have no fat, but be packed with sugar to make it more enticing to eat. A “sugar free” product may not be that sweet, but be packed with fats to boost the flavour.

Jean Hailes dietitian Anna Waldron advises caution around these types of claims on labels. “It’s easy to be tricked into thinking a food product is healthy when it isn't,” says Anna. “It’s a good idea to also check the ingredients list and nutrition information panel to see what’s in the product. The saturated fat, fibre, sugar and sodium content can all be important to consider. Some people with special dietary considerations may need to look for other information on the label too.”

There are regulations (Food Standards Code) in Australia that cover all aspects of the sale of food, including the labelling of food products. Claims can only be made if the product meets certain criteria.

Nutrition content claims – what they really mean  

  • Fat free – the product must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat
  • Low fat – must contain less than three per cent fat for a solid food or 1.5 per cent for liquids
  • Reduced salt or reduced fat – this must have at least a 25 per cent reduction compared to the original product
  • Good source of iron/calcium/protein claims – these must contain no less than 25 per cent of the daily recommended intake (RDI) of the listed mineral or vitamin in a serve
  • No added sugar – a product stating no added sugar may still have a high sugar content from natural sources of sugar such as fruit
  • Cholesterol free or no cholesterol – dietary cholesterol is mostly found in animal products such as prawns, meat and eggs. This claim means nothing in a plant-based product, as plant foods contain virtually zero cholesterol anyway. A cholesterol-free product may be high in saturated fat, which contributes to increasing our blood cholesterol level. It is more important to check the saturated fat content if you are trying to lower your cholesterol.

While food packaging is designed to make the product appear more enticing, the nutritional contents and ingredients list is what really matters.

Nutritional information panel
The nutritional information panel is found on most packaged foods and gives you the exact quantity of nutrients, including the energy content in kilojoules, protein, total and saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, and sodium. There are often two columns of numbers – quantity per serving and quantity per 100g (or 100ml). When you are comparing products it is easier to use the quantity per 100g column, because serving sizes may differ between products.

To help you try to choose the healthiest options, look out for the recommended nutrient levels listed below. These are just general guidelines and there are exceptions to these rules with certain foods.

  • Saturated fat – aim for less than 3g per 100g (exceptions may include cheese, seeds, nuts, oils and margarines)
  • Total fat – aim for less than 10g per 100g (exceptions may include nuts, fish, seeds and other sources of healthy fats)
  • Sugar – aim for less than 15g per 100g
  • Sodium – aim for 120mg or less per 100g serving (for a low-sodium diet).

The ingredients list
Ingredients are listed in descending order. This means the first ingredient listed is the one with the largest quantity in the product, while the one with the smallest quantity is listed last. If sugar is listed near the start of the list, you can be sure that the product contains a high proportion of sugar.

Health star rating
Australia’s health star rating (HSR) helps you to make healthier choices when buying packaged foods. Launched in July 2015, the HSR system aims to take the guesswork out of deciding how healthy (or not) a product is. The healthier a food is, the higher the star rating, with numbers ranging from 1/2 star for less healthy to five stars for the healthiest choices. The HSR is displayed on the front of packaged foods, to give an at-a-glance summary of the nutritional profile. However, the HSR is a voluntary system, so unfortunately not all food manufacturers have adopted it. 

On the HSR label, the nutrient content such as energy, saturated fats, sugars and sodium may also be shown. The label may also highlight one positive nutrient such as protein, fibre or certain vitamins and minerals. The HSR can make it easier to quickly compare two similar products, for example breakfast cereals. They may appear to be fairly similar but the HSR of one could have a rating of three, while the other could have a rating of five, indicating the healthier option, without having to read the nutritional information panel.

“Eating well for your health isn't meant to be complicated,” says Anna. “Remember, the foods without labels, such as fruit and vegetables and non-packaged foods, are often some of the better choices to make.”

Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women's Health. Learn more about good nutrition and healthy food choices on the Jean Hailes website.



    To make a comment, please register or login
    25th Apr 2016
    If only labels could be read before attempting to decipher the words.
    Very small print, white on yellow or reverse, or dark green on dark blue...all meant to confuse and annoy and hopefully consumers will give up in frustration.
    25th Apr 2016
    This is an important issue. I have trouble reading some of them even with my reading glasses.

    It's obvious the manufacturers don't want us to know what's in their products.

    Maybe the guideline should be:

    "If you can't read the fine print, don't buy the product."
    25th Apr 2016
    Yes, Ranga, I noticed that some time ago. I rang the company that was doing that and told them how stupid that was especially for people who might have trouble differentiating between the colours. "Thank you for your comment , Sir, I'll pass it on". Did they change, of course not.!

    25th Apr 2016
    I disagree that one can "quickly make healthy and informed choices." The problem is the first word of that quote.
    25th Apr 2016
    I would also like more information on the origin of all of the ingredients and the percentages of local and imported ingredients in the product, not including packaging
    25th Apr 2016
    Not forgetting the barcodes, very important ....
    25th Apr 2016
    Bar codes can deceive. They only indicate where the product was intended to be sold, not where it's from.
    26th Apr 2016
    Darn right Barak bar codes mean nothing -- company can be OWNED here PACKED here but the contents can come from who knows where --even MADE IN AUSTRALIA means NOTHING as it only means it is PACKED here.

    So many things state "MADE IN AUSTRALIA"
    then in small print "FROM IMPORTED PRODUCT"
    25th Apr 2016
    The labels are meant to deceive and the most important information is where the food is made and bottled. This is not always on the label and it is clearly a marketing ploy so that customers do not put the product down and buy one from a reputable country of manufacture.
    We've all heard the stories about food grown in China. The untreated human waste used as fertiliser. The ofttimes toxic soil in which crops are grown. And the refusal of our authorities to test the food. It says more about consumers' rights being nil and retailers' rights to flog cheap subgrade products being enshrined into law.
    25th Apr 2016
    Its Frozen Berry Season again Mick ! :-) :-)
    25th Apr 2016
    yep ! Imp Daunted ? Left my Magnifying Glass at home ! :-( So I left the foreign muck on the shelf ! :-)
    25th Apr 2016
    I like the comment about the value of 'quantity per serving' vs 'quantity per 100gm' (i.e. percentage). Quantity per serving is useless if the serving size is either not given or is difficult or time-consuming for the consumer to measure. I subscribe to 'Diabetic Living' (though not for much longer) and find it endlessly annoying that their many recipes give full nutritional information per serving WITHOUT ANY INDICATION OF SERVING SIZE!!
    25th Apr 2016
    You are so spot on for many products. How does serve size 35g help (instead of eg 1/2 cup) or 10 serves per packet? Leaves with with no concept of what your serve constitutes.
    Gee Whiz
    25th Apr 2016
    Governments are reluctant to introduce simplified labeling (which the public want) for fear of upsetting the food industry who are one of their biggest contributors.

    Suggesting to politicians that it should be law for food to show if the product contains "genetically modified" ingredients will bring them out in a cold sweat. This is how powerful a hold Monsanto has on governments.
    25th Apr 2016
    "Simplified labeling" is just that - simplified. Yes I agree, it's useful, BUT it's drawn upon defined health criteria which correspond to most, but not to all individual needs. Also, some of the weightings of criteria are 'Solomon's judgement'. At least he's more trustworthy than our commercial entities. As long as the NIP remains, I'm OK with it, but it's not perfect.

    Food industry pressure has also made labeling, as it stands, piss weak eg how do you tell how much trans fats (the real fats to fear) are in the product? You can't if there is no front claim on the type of fat used - only total and say fat are named, the rest are concealed. The generic term 'vegetable fat/oil' now routinely named in the ingredients list will hide whether its hydrogenated ie trans. A pathetic weakness eg I recall 15+ yrs ago Nutella having 4% (a lot) hydrogenated peanut oil, until trans become dirt, now it's 'veg' fat instead, no clue to trans content.
    25th Apr 2016
    I meant saturated, not 'say' fat as obligatory item in the NIP
    25th Apr 2016
    Food labeling is indeed complex, and the rules allow obfuscation and manipulation, I'll comment on a few. The info in the intro hardly explains the intricacies and abets confusion, in my view.

    Reduced salt - reduced to what??? The main import here is how much you use. Reduced salt butter - saving is near zilch if you use 10g, but reduced salt soup/stock, using 250g per serves means heaps.

    Sugar, need to note dried fruit content of some cereals eg 10% raisins contributes 5% sugar but not as just added sugar (dried fruit has nutrients and fibre and hence is better). On the other hand no added sugar fruit juice at 8.5% sugar is hardly better than 10% with a teeny bit added. How much juice you consume, of any type, is the real issue clearly.

    Nutrition Information Panel - the absolute goldmine of info, but how to interpret those numbers? Compare the info to other products OF THE SAME CLASS. eg savoury biscuits 3-35% fat and 400-1200mg sodium - good info for deciding. I'll add more on this.

    Recommend Levels on the NIP as quoted are dodgy.
    Saturated fat <3%. This is under severe debate right now. Sure, I reckon, eat lean but 3% fat means no meat, cheese etc etc with whittling proof of this view.

    Total fat < 10 %, again, I recommend comparing products, choosing less if overweight, more if aged and underweight ( BMI for over 70's is higher ie thin is the danger). This advice would mean no cheese, nuts, avocado etc – that needs more cogent reason. Sweeping advice with many holes.

    Sugar <15% - what's meant is added sugar and that's often less than it seems eg flavoured yoghurt at 15% has 1/3 from natural lactose. It also means Coke at 10% is fine to drink, really!

    Sodium at 120mg/100g - OK, never eat bread of any description ever again at 400+mg/100gm. It's about using high sodium content, large volume items with care eg packet soups, flavoured noodles. Statistically, best survival is for people with moderate (as opposed to low) sodium intake. Some may need to be on much lower intakes for specific conditions.

    Ingredients info can be tricky, it may be simply in descending order, with little notion of actual content. The big gift is if % content is given, this is obligatory if the ingredient is named on the front of packet. Eg would you buy an avocado dip with 20% or 60% avocado, canned tuna with 40% or 70% tuna? You can also sort the added sugar content if the % dried fruit ingredient is given (allow half the % as it's total sugar content contribution), as for fat half the % for nuts. For those with reactions like allergy or food intolerance the ingredients list should tell all you need.
    25th Apr 2016
    Finally, having all this info under my belt through a previous occupation, here's a few examples of applying what I know to guide my choices.

    Cheese I choose as full fat, little options there. Milk I use as full fat too, but would choose fat reduced if I consumed more. I like Greek yoghurt but choose 4% rather than 10% fat.
    Breads, always go for fibre >5% for good bowel effect.
    Savoury biscuits definitely <10% fat, <400mg sodium, if possible. Dead loss as fibre source in the main, usually not even listed.
    Dips, scrutinise content eg % avocado, eggplant, nut, whatever's of interest for value. Fat , look for < 15% unless high nut content. Sodium ~400mg/100g. Houmus always <10% is my pick.
    Juices, really there's little difference, don't care.
    Stock, at least <250mg/100ml sodium
    I don't often buy stuff like frozen lasagne etc. If I did, I would compare protein level (a cue for level of meat content), total fat ( reflects on meat quality and white sauce content) and lastly sodium, given a serve is substantial.

    The whole notion here is underlined by frequency and amount of consumption of stuff like salt or fat,sugar, rather than rigid rules of avoidance, as well as consideration of age, where much of this scenario reduces these imperatives that are meant to limit developing risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity in younger people. The introduction said nothing about this perspective. In old age there is much more focus on weight maintenance and nutritional adequacy, nutrition remaining as important but perhaps with a wider focus.

    Tags: food, health, diet

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