CHOICE guide to food labelling

You can't judge a book by its cover – what about food by its label?
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03.Labelling tricks

Under an alias

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


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


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


  • 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.


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