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Understanding food labels

3-minute read

Food labels have lots of useful information. They can provide a guide for healthy eating and preparing nutritious meals for your child.

What’s on a food label?

All statements and claims on foods sold in Australia must conform to standards set by the government agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand. They must show:

  • product name and description
  • ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date
  • ingredients list
  • nutrition information panel
  • health or nutrition claims
  • information for people with allergies
  • details of manufacturer or importer

Product name and description

All foods must have an accurate name. For example, a food called ‘Strawberry Snack Bar’ must contain strawberries, not just strawberry flavouring.

‘Use by’ or ‘best before’ date

Foods with a short life must have a ‘use by’ date. They are safe until that date if they have been stored according to the label.

A food past its ‘use by’ date should not be sold. It might not be safe.

‘Best before’ means the food should maintain its quality until that date. It might still be safe to eat after that time but it might not. The food might have lost some of its flavour or nutrition.

For bread, a ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ date is permitted if its shelf life is less than 7 days. Foods that will last more than 2 years, such as canned foods, do not need any date marking.

Ingredients list

All ingredients should be listed in order of weight in the food. The major ingredient is first.

The percentage of any ingredient in the product name must be listed. This shows whether you’re getting real ingredients or ‘fillers’ such as starches and sugars.

Food additives can be listed either by their name or number.

Nutrition information panel

Packaged foods have a nutrition information panel that shows, per serving and per 100g or 100 mL and show how much there is of:

  • energy/kilojoules
  • protein
  • total fat
  • saturated fat
  • total carbohydrate
  • sugars
  • sodium
  • dietary fibre

Very small packets, herbs, spices, tea and coffee are exempt.

When you compare foods, it’s best to use the ‘per 100g’ column. Food companies can choose their preferred serving size, and that might be quite different from what you would eat.

‘Sugars’ in the nutrition information pane include the sugars naturally in fruit, milk and vegetables, as well as all added sugars.

Health claims

Any claim for a health benefit can only be made for foods that meet set nutritional guidelines.

The food must have enough of a particular nutrient either naturally or added.

Cow’s milk has enough natural calcium to claim it’s a source, but oat or soy drinks must add calcium to make claims.

The food code prevents companies adding vitamins to foods with poor nutritional value.

Allergens

Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish and shellfish, soy, wheat and lupin can cause allergic reactions in some people.

The ingredients list must highlight these foods. It must also list gluten (from wheat, barley, rye, triticale and oats).

Some people with asthma react badly to sulphite preservatives. They must be listed if they are present at 10mg per kilogram or more.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand has more information.

Health star rating

A government health star rating system permits stars from 0.5 to 5 stars. It helps you compare similar packaged foods. It is based on how much saturated fat, salt, sugars and kilojoules the food contains.

The star system is not compulsory. Food manufacturers and retailers are responsible for the correct and accurate use of the Health Star Rating system.

In general, the more stars the better for a particular food. A 5-star breakfast cereal is a better choice than a cereal with 2 stars.

Further information

Maternal child health nurses are available at the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline on 1800 882 436 for advice and support with problems.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2019


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This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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