How to understand food labels

Can you judge a food by its label? Cancer Council Queensland spokesperson Katie Clift tells you how.

Light, low or no cholesterol, fresh, Australian-made, baked not fried, reduced-fat, no sugar?!

While food labels are a valuable source of information, they can sometimes appear cluttered and confusing, discouraging consumers from deciphering the pros and cons of purchasing certain foods over others.


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Here’s our concise guide to understanding the essential elements of food labelling:

Ingredients list
Ingredients are listed in order of the proportion they comprise in the total product. The first ingredient is the major ingredient, representing the greatest proportion of any one ingredient in the product, and the last ingredient represents the smallest proportion of any one ingredient in the product. Try to avoid products that list sugar, fat or salt in the top three ingredients. When potentially allergenic products are included in the ingredients, they must be identified on packaging in accordance with mandatory allergen labels. ‘May contain’ warnings however, are placed on packaging voluntarily by manufacturers to advise there may be accidental cross-contamination of the food by allergens during product manufacturing.

Nutritional information panel
All foods should have a nutrition information panel (NIP) – it tells you the quantity of various nutrients in a product per serve, as well as per 100g or 100ml, which can be used to compare similar products. The NIP provides information on energy (in kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. It’s important to check whether your portion size is the same as the serving size. For example, a 200ml tub of yoghurt may list a serving size of 100g on the NIP, even though a 200ml tub is considered a standard serve for most consumers. It’s also important to remember when comparing products that different serving sizes may be listed.

Date marking
Foods with a shelf-life of less than two years must have a best-before or use-by date. A best before date is the last date on which you can expect food to retain all its quality attributes (provided it has been stored according to storage conditions and the package is unopened). Foods that should not be consumed after a certain date for health and safety reasons must have a use-by date and cannot be sold after that date. Products with a use-by date also shouldn’t be consumed after that date. You’ll find this on perishables such as meat, fish and dairy products. Some foods, such as bread, carry the date they were manufactured or packed, rather than a use-by date, so you can tell how fresh the food is. Retailers often discount products that are approaching their best-before or use-by dates, so check any items marked ‘for quick sale’ before you make your purchase.

Health star ratings
The Health Star Rating (HSR) system was developed by Australian, State and Territory Governments, industry, public health and consumer groups to provide an overall rating of the healthiness of a product, as well as specific nutrient and energy information. It takes into account energy, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars, with the potential to apply modifying points for certain positive aspects of food such as fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content and, in some instances, dietary fibre, protein and calcium content. Basically, the more stars a product has, the healthier it is.

Nutrition health claims
A new standard to control the use of health claims on food labels came into effect in 2013. Health claims refer to a relationship between food and health rather than a statement of content (e.g. ‘a good source of calcium’). All health claims are required to be supported by scientific evidence and are only be permitted on foods that meet certain criteria.

Labelling tricks
Don’t be misled by labelling tricks. Here are some common ones to look out for: ‘light or lite’ does not necessarily mean low-calorie or low-fat, it may just be light in colour, taste or texture. ‘Low or no cholesterol’ on foods like margarine and oil are often meaningless because all vegetable oils contain virtually no cholesterol, but can often be high in fat. ‘Baked not fried’ might sound healthier, but may have just as much fat.

So, it turns out you can judge a product by its food label… use our guide the next time you’re filling the trolley, and keep yourself healthy and happy.

 

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