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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.