CHOICE guide to food labelling

You can't judge a book by its cover – what about food by its label?
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
 

01 .CHOICE guide to food labelling

Woman shopping

In brief

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 dates

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.

 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

What’s in a name?

Some foods have a name that’s prescribed by law, such as ice cream and bread, and often this name alone is enough for you to figure out what the food is. Where the manufacturer can choose the name of its food, it needs to be accurate and can’t be misleading. For example, a pie labelled "beef pie" must have more beef than any other meat, while a "meat pie" could contain a range of different meats. However, you’ll often find examples of misleading names, so read the ingredients list carefully.

Pictures

Like names, pictures mustn’t mislead. So, for example, a fruit drink should not entice you with a picture of real fruit if it only contains fruit flavours. Unfortunately, when it comes to regulation none of the regulatory bodies seem to feel they own this one. The food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), no longer includes it in its regulations and says it falls within the trade practices regulations of false and misleading. Unfortunately breeches usually go unaddressed.

Nutrition claims

Nutrition claims like "low in fat" or "high in fibre" may seem an easy way to help you decide what to buy, but make sure you find out what the claims don’t mention. A food may be low in fat, but high in sugar or salt, for example. Not all of these claims are regulated either. Some are left up to manufacturers to decide when to use them, with a voluntary code of practice as a guide. This looks set to change with new legislation being worked on by FSANZ, which would define all these terms, but it’s not here yet. See Labelling tricks and traps for some of the more common nutrition claims.

Health claims

Claims that a food "fights heart disease" or helps "prevent cancer" are sometimes seen on food labels. These types of claims aren’t allowed, but food manufacturers are rarely taken to task because the whole system’s currently under review. Health claims are problematic, because they imply that a single product is enough to keep you healthy, when we know a healthy, balanced diet is the key. As far as we’re concerned, they’re just another manufacturer marketing ploy.

As the proposals for new regulations currently stand, only pre-approved health claims will be allowed on foods. And only foods that can meet certain criteria regarding things like the amount of fat, sugar, salt and fibre they contain will be eligible to carry a health claim. CHOICE is keeping a close watch on the development of the new standard and working hard to get consumers the clearest and most helpful labelling possible.

Measures

The measure tells you the amount of food in the package. It's expressed in grams (g) for solid and semi-solid foods, and millilitres (mL) for liquids. If you buy a canned product, bear in mind that the net weight equals everything including liquid. For some foods, like tinned tomatoes, you may not mind the juice, but when it comes to tinned salmon it can be a costly problem. You may be able to see exactly how much salmon you’re getting, for example, by checking the information on the nutrition panel – there you’ll find the number of serves per package and the weight of each suggested serve, usually without the throw-away liquid – or the percentage of the ingredient you're interested may be shown in the ingredient list.

Ingredients

The ingredients list is your main guide to what’s in a food. Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including any added water.

The list should also include the percentage of characterising ingredients. These are those ingredients mentioned in the name of the product or highlighted on the label in the form of words, pictures or graphics, or are essential to characterise a food — for example, milk fat in ice cream or cocoa solids in chocolate.

If you’re allergic to certain components it’s vital to read the ingredients list. All potential allergens have to be highlighted and listed separately. For example, the generic term nuts can be used but if the mix includes peanuts they have to be listed separately; if a gluten-containing cereal is included, gluten must also be declared separately.

May contain

More and more foods carry a warning that they "may contain" ingredients such as nuts and eggs. Rather than helping people with allergies it just makes life difficult — you can end up either avoiding all sorts of food on the off-chance they'll cause a problem, or, as research in the UK shows, ignoring warning labels.

Manufacturers can use this kind of strategy to avoid responsibility for things like not segregating foods, not cleaning properly between batches or not knowing the full ingredient listing themselves. CHOICE considers manufacturers have a duty of care to consumers – they should know exactly what’s in their products and label them accordingly.

Some manufacturers give additional information about the degree of possible contamination that may be useful to some consumers, such as 'Made on a production line that also makes nut products'.

Under an alias

If you're keeping an eye out for sugar, fat and salt, they can travel incognito in the ingredients list.

Fat

  • Margarine
  • Butter
  • Vegetable oil
  • Lard
  • Shortening
  • Full-cream milk powder
  • Mono-, di- or triglycerides

Sugar

  • Honey
  • Malt
  • Sugar/sucrose
  • Molasses
  • Glucose syrup
  • Fructose (or fruit juice concentrate)
  • Dextrose (this is an alternative name for glucose)
  • Corn syrup
  • Golden syrup

Salt

  • Sodium chloride
  • Yeast extract
  • Soy sauce
  • MSG

Labelling tips and traps

Don’t get caught — what you think the label should mean and what it actually means could be two different things. Here’re some tips on things to look out for.

  • Light or lite It may sound good, but it’s not necessarily low-calorie or even low-fat. It may just be light in colour, taste or texture. It often means the olive oil doesn’t taste too strong or the chips are thin and lightly salted.
  • Avoid cholesterol confusion Don’t be fooled by claims like "no cholesterol", "low cholesterol" or "cholesterol-free" on things like margarine and oil. All vegetable oils contain virtually no cholesterol. But they’re high in fat, and can help load on the kilos if used too generously.
  • Reduced-fat isn’t low-fat Reduced-fat is tricky — one brand’s reduced-fat could still have more fat than another brand’s regular. Comparing the nutrition panels is the only way to be sure. A reduced fat product should have at least 25% less fat than the product it's being comapred to (and the label should tell you what that is). Or look for "low-fat" which means less than 3% (or 1.5% for drinks).
  • 93% fat free That’s 7% fat, but it looks so much better the other way.
  • Baked not fried It sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat — check the nutrition panel to be sure.
  • Fresh Fresh as two weeks old? "Fresh" may conjure up images of dew-picked produce only hours old, but in fact it may only mean it hasn’t been preserved by freezing, canning, high-temperature or chemical treatment. It may have been refrigerated and spent time in processing and transport, but it’s still "fresh".
  • No artificial colours, flavours or additives Doesn’t mean no additives. Check the ingredient for "natural" or "nature-identical" additives. And "no flavours" doesn’t mean no MSG – it’s a flavour enhancer, not a flavour.
  • When strawberry’s mostly apple Many fruit products loudly announce their yummy fruit flavours, but check the ingredients and you might find more pear, apple or fruit juice concentrate — and maybe a little strawberry flavour.

Who's regulating food labelling?

The state and territory health departments are responsible for enforcing food laws. Both the Food Regulations and the Commonwealth Trade Practices Act, administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), prohibit false and misleading information.

So you’d think this was a safety net for the consumer, but in reality nothing much is ever done about misleading food labelling. State health departments are responsible for enforcing food standards, but they're under-resourced, so labelling issues tend to take a back seat to problems which risk public health and safety.

To deal adequately with misleading and deceptive labelling more resources must be devoted to food inspection bodies.

The ACCC has relatively limited resources as well. It sometimes deals with the most blatant breaches and has taken an in manufacturers telling porkies about the fruit content of their products in recent years. But in general it's difficult to get the ACCC to deal with small case-by-case labelling problems. Without adequate resources for proper enforcement at both the state and national level, any food labelling regulations will have little impact.

A list of the contacts who deal with enforcement of the Food Standards Code in each state can be found on the FSANZ website.