How to understand food labels

Food labels can be very confusing and tricky to understand. Often we don’t have the time to spend trying to work out what they mean and how to use them.

However, a few quick tips can make shopping for healthy food a whole lot easier and quicker and can help you lose weight. Knowing what nutrition information to look for, can help you make the best choice for your health and avoid unnecessary saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and kilojoules.

Labels on most packaged food must meet strict requirements that include information for people with food allergies, food additive listings and food storage instructions. More information about food labelling requirements can be found at Food Labels - What do they mean? Food Standards Australia and New Zealand [PDF, 1MB].

While food labels can carry many different types of information, the main things to look at when choosing healthy food are the Nutrition Information Panel.

Nutrition Information Panel

Click on the image for a larger version.

The Nutrition Information Panel on a food label offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre. It can also be used to decide how large one serve of a food group choice or discretionary food would be and whether it’s worth the kilojoules. This is particularly important if you are trying to lose weight.

First use the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating to decide whether a food belongs in the five food groups and is an ‘everyday’ food for eating regularly, or a discretionary food best eaten only sometimes or in small amounts.

Then use the Nutrition Information Panel to compare similar packaged foods and to decide which product provides less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules per 100gm and more fibre per serve.

Small image of the an example Nutrition Information Panel. Links to larger version.

Using Nutrition Information Panels to help you lose weight

If we want to lose weight, it’s best to avoid discretionary foods as they provide few nutrients but plenty of kilojoules. However, it is still possible to include small serves of discretionary foods, eaten occasionally and savoured by eating slowly and enjoying the food with all our senses.

The trick is to choose only the foods or drinks that we really enjoy. Some people have a sweet tooth or love chocolate, others prefer savoury and love a great cheese. Other people really enjoy a wine sipped slowly. All food is not equally special for us. We all have our favourites.

The Nutrition Information Panel can help us decide if a food is really ‘kilojoule worthy’. Beware of foods that look like a single serve, but actually contain several servings in one packet. Once we know the kilojoules in a serve, we can weigh up whether our enjoyment warrants the extra kilojoules.

Health Star Rating (HSR) system

Example Health Start Rating System label

The Health Star Rating (HSR) system is a front-of-pack labelling scheme developed for use in Australia and New Zealand to ‘provide convenient, relevant and readily understood nutrition information and/or guidance on food packs to assist consumers to make informed food purchases and healthier eating choices’. Health Star Ratings will make it much easier for shoppers to make informed choices about healthier food options.

The HSR on the front of food packages provides an at-a-glance overall rating of the healthiness of the food product (reflected as a star rating), as well as specific nutrient and energy information. The more stars, the healthier the choice.

Generally, the HSR will provide the most useful source of comparison between similar food products (e.g. comparing packaged breakfast cereals). Where the nutrient icons are also displayed, they will provide information about the energy content of a product, as well as the levels of saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars, to help you make the best choice to suit your personal circumstances. In some cases, a positive nutrient icon (e.g. fibre) may also be displayed to provide you with additional information to help you choose the right product for you.

The HSR system was developed by Australian, state and territory governments, industry, public health and consumer groups.

Ingredients List

All ingredients in a food product must be listed on the label in order (Food Labels - What do they mean? Food Standards Australia and New Zealand [PDF, 1MB], from largest to smallest by weight.

You can use this to spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars because these ingredients are listed in the top three. Also look out for other words on the ingredients list that flag ingredients high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars.

Using the Ingredients List to help you lose weight

To lose weight we need to eat and drink fewer kilojoules than our bodies use. The kilojoules can come from one source or a combination of fat, sugars, protein, carbohydrate or alcohol. It’s the overall kilojoule total that matters for weight loss, rather than the source of the kilojoules. However, if fat or sugars are high on the list of ingredients, it is a good reason to check how high the kilojoules are in the amount you would eat.

Nutrition content claims

Sometimes labels will include nutrition content claims like ‘low fat’, ‘reduced salt’ or ‘high fibre’. These claims can only be used if the food meets certain criteria. For example, with a ‘good source of calcium’ claim, the food must contain more than a set amount of calcium. While nutrition content claims can generally guide you to healthier choices, it is important to check the claim by looking at the Nutrition Information Panel. For example, products carrying ‘low fat’ claims may not be low in total energy (kilojoules) when compared with similar products.

Health claims

Different to nutrition content claims, health claims link a food, or a nutrient or substance in a food, to a health effect. There are two types of health claims:

  • General level health claims refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its effect on a health function. For example: calcium is good for bones and teeth.
  • High level health claims refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its relationship to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease. For example: Diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people 65 years and over. An example of a biomarker health claim is: Phytosterols may reduce blood cholesterol.

A new standard to regulate nutrition content and health claims was gazetted in January 2013 (Standard 1.2.7 – Nutrition, Health and Related Claims). There is a three year transition period which means that by 18 January 2016, foods carrying nutrition content claims, health claims and endorsements will need to comply with the new Standard. Click here for an overview of Standard 1.2.7 from the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand website.

Standard 1.2.7 ensures consumers and health professionals can have confidence that health claims are well supported by scientific evidence, and it helps consumers make informed food choices. Health claims are only permitted on foods that meet certain nutrition criterion, thereby preventing health claims on food higher in saturated fat, sugar or salt.

Percentage Daily Intake

Some labels also list nutrients in a serve of the product as a percentage of daily nutrient intake. This can be used to compare the nutrients in one serve of the food with what an ‘average adult’ needs. Like nutrition claims, this information can give you a rough guide, but your individual needs, particularly kilojoules, could be quite different.

The tables below offer a simpler way to work out how a food fits with your nutrient and energy requirements for a day. It can also be used to plan meals and snacks to lose weight if extra serves and discretionary foods are avoided.

Minimum recommended average daily number of serves from each of the five food groups