01.CHOICE guide to food labelling
Food labelling can be a minefield of confusion and misinformation. Labelling legislation offers some relief, but often isn't sufficiently enforced.
We tell you what a food label's really telling you and what crafty marketing tricks to watch out for.
Please note: this information was current as of January 2009 and may not be as useful to today's market.
What’s on a label?
Almost all foods must have on their label:
- The food's official name (called a prescribed name) or a description if there's no official name.
- The supplier's Australian or New Zealand contact name and address.
- The country of origin.
- Date marking and a way of identifying the production lot.
- An ingredient list inlcuding the percentages of key ingredients – called characterising ingredients.
- A nutrition information panel.
- Directions on how to store the food in order to remain safe.
- All the information needed on a label has to be in English, distinct, easy to read, prominent, with colours that contrast with the background, and appropriately placed.
Some foods must also include certain warning and advisory statements or declarations, such as foods containing genetically-modified ingredients. Certain allergens in foods must always be declared, e.g. gluten, egg, nuts, and fish. Manufacturers may also choose to include extras like nutrition claims, e.g. low-fat.
There are only some foods that don't need a label, such as foods packaged in front of you, or those made and packaged where they're sold, e.g. prepackaged sandwiches in a sandwich bar.
Use-by and best-before dates have strict definitions:
Use-by: if a food can become unsafe, it must have a use-by date and it can’t be sold after that date. You’ll find use-by dates on perishables such as meat, fish and dairy products. Don’t eat any food that’s past its use-by date, even if it looks and smells OK.
Best before: most other foods must use best-before dates – unless they last two years or more in which case they don’t need any date marking – which is a guide to how long they'll keep their qualities. The food should be at peak quality until the date given and still be safe to eat after that date, though its quality may suffer.
Some foods, such as bread, can use a "baked on" or "baked for" date instead of a best-before date (the baked-for date can't be more than 12 hours after the bread is baked). This system is far more helpful for bread, because a best-before date gives no indication when the bread was baked and how fresh it is.
Date marking and/or a batch code is a way of identifying where and at what time the food was prepared or packaged. This information is vital if a product needs to be recalled.
Country of origin
Food labels must identify the country in which the food was made or produced. It’s a mandatory requirement of the Food Standards Code (FSC), independent of the Trade Practices Act (TPA) country-of-origin requirements.
Seems straightforward enough. However, decoding country of origin labels is far from it. Most consumers will be familiar with labels that say things like "Made in Australia from Australian and/or imported ingredients" – which ones? how much? CHOICE has even come across the description on fresh fish as "Imported from China, Vietnam or Thailand". We think manufacturers can, and should, do better.
- A "product of Australia" claim means each significant ingredient must come from here and all or most of the processing must happen here too. If you're looking to buy Australian, it's your safest bet.
- "Made in Australia" may only mean that the food was substantially transformed here and that at least 50% of the production costs were incurred here.
- "Made in Australia from local & imported/imported & local ingredients". This claim gives you a bit more information: whichever comes first, local or imported, tells you which is in the largest amount.
Nutrition information panel
All foods should have a nutrition panel. It tells you the quantity of various nutrients a food contains per serve, as well as per 100g or mL. Use the per 100g or mL to compare like products — your idea of a serve may not be the same as a manufacturer's, for example, a 200g tub of yoghurt can list a serve size as 100g, but most people would eat the whole lot in one go, and one manufacturer might differ from another.
CHOICE has developed a rule-of-thumb guide to give you a rough idea of whether a food contains a little or a lot of the most important nutrients — you should be watching your fat, sugar and sodium intake and eating plenty of fibre.
You may also have seen %DI (daily intake) labelling on food labels. This is a system developed by food manufacturers, and CHOICE has some serious concerns about its usefulness. See our report.