Reading and understanding food labels
While we know that fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, legumes and lean meat are the best choices, at times we all rely on processed and packaged foods. In Australia, all packaged foods must display certain information such as a nutrition information panel (NIP), ingredient list and best-before or use-by date.
Understanding how to intepret the information contained on food packages will allow you to make healthier choices for you and your family.
Nutrition information panel (NIP)
The NIP provides information about the amount of energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in the food. Other nutrients (such as calcium and iron) are listed if a claim is made about them, such as ‘good source of calcium'. The panel displays the amount of nutrient per 100g and per serve. When comparing products it is best to use the per 100g column as the serving size will vary between different products, and may be different from how much you actually eat.
When reading the nutrition information panel we recommend you choose products with:
- Less than 600kJ of energy per serve of snack food
- Less than 10g of total fat per 100g
- Less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g
- Less than 15g of sugar per 100g
- Less than 400mg of sodium (salt) per 100g
More than 3g of fibre per serve
Health Star Rating
The Health Star Rating is a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system used in Australia and New Zealand. Its purpose is to provide at-a-glance nutrition information to help people compare similar packaged food products.
Health Star Ratings range from 1/2 a star to 5 stars.
These ratings can appear on packs in two ways. The first shows just the star rating of the product; the second can show the star rating plus the nutrient content of the product.
So what are the stars based on?
Elements contributing to the star rating include:
- Energy (kilojoules)
- Nutrients to limit - saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars
- Positive nutrients - dietary fibre, protein and fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content
Because Health Star Ratings are designed to compare similar food products, comparing different kinds of foods will not give accurate results. For example, the star rating on a yoghurt does not represent how healthy it is compared to a packet of lollies or breakfast cereal, only compared to other yoghurts or similar dairy products.
You also do not usually find a Health Star Rating on fresh foods like fruit and vegetables, which should be eaten every day for good health.
Visit the Health Star Rating website to learn more.
Ingredients are listed from most to least by weight. This means the ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount and the ingredient listed last is present in the least amount. Ingredient lists are also useful for looking for sources of added fat, sugar and salt as well as potential allergens. Remember there are many other names used for fat, sugar and salt that may be listed in the ingredient list. Here are some to look out for:
Different names for fat
Butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil, copha, cream, dripping, ghee, hydrogenated oil, lard, margarine, oils (of any kind), palm oil, shortening, suet, tallow, vegetable oil
Different names for sugar
Agave nectar, brown/cane/raw sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit puree concentrate, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, golden syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt, malt extract, maple syrup, maltose, molasses, rice syrup, sucrose
Different names for salt
Celery salt, chicken salt, flavour enhancer 621 (monosodium glutamate [MSG]), pink salt, meat/vegetable/yeast extract, rock salt, sea salt, sodium, soy sauce, stock, table salt
Use-by and best-before date
The use-by date means that the food must be eaten or thrown away by this date as the food may be unsafe to eat.
The best-before date means that the food is still safe to eat (as long as its not damaged) but may have lost some of its quality and nutrition after this date.
For detailed information about reading and understanding food labels visit the Food Standards website.