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Understanding food labels

6-minute read

Food labels have lots of useful information. It is helpful to understand food labels, so that you can make nutritious meals for your child.

What's on a food label?

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

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

All food labels are required to be truthful. They must not contain any misleading details.

Food labels display accurate weights and measurements. This is ensured by Australian and New Zealand consumer laws.

The food label must legible and should be:

  • written in English
  • distinguishable from the background packaging

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. These foods are safe to eat until that date. However, this also depends on correct storage. Storage instructions can also be found on the label.

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

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

A ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ date is permitted for bread. This is if its shelf life is less than 7 days.

Foods that last over 2 years, such as canned foods, do not need any date marking.

Directions for storage

There can be instructions for storing food until its best-before or use-by date. Any storage conditions must be included on the label, such as:

  • temperature
  • moisture level
  • conditions once the food is opened

It is important to pay attention to the storage instructions and practice good food preparation hygiene.

Ingredients list

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

The percentage of any ingredient in the product name must be listed.

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

Nutrition information panel

Packaged foods have a nutrition information panel that shows how much there is of:

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

These amounts are provided per serving, and per 100g or 100mL.

Very small packets, such as herbs, spices, tea and coffee do not have to have this panel.

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 panel include added sugars, as well as naturally occurring sugar.

It is important that your child gets the nutrients required for their development. To prepare a healthy diet for your child, you should consider the nutritional information of a food. If you are unsure about which nutrients are necessary for your child, you can consult the Australian Dietary Guidelines. You can also see your doctor.

Food additives

Any additives used in a food must be listed in the ingredients by their class name, such as:

  • colour
  • flavour
  • humectant
  • preservative
  • thickener

If foods contain any genetically modified ingredients, they will be labelled with the words ‘genetically modified’. This should appear in the product name or alongside the relevant item on the ingredients list. All genetically modified (GM) foods sold in Australia must undergo a safety test by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Health claims

Some foods claim to have a specific health benefit. This can only be made for foods that meet specific 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 is a source of calcium. However, oat or soy drinks must add calcium to make health claims.

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

Allergens

Food labels must contain information about common allergens. These include:

  • eggs
  • fish and shellfish
  • gluten
  • milk
  • peanuts
  • sesame seeds
  • soy
  • tree nuts
  • wheat and lupin

The ingredients list must highlight these foods. Additionally, allergy information should be declared in a specific location on food labels, in bold font.

Some people with asthma react badly to sulphite preservatives. They must be listed if they are present in the food at a level that might cause concern.

If your child has an allergy, it is important to read food labels and check the ingredients list when buying food.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand has more information.

Health Star Rating

A government Health Star Rating System is a quick, front-of-package way to help you compare the nutrition of packaged foods. The system permits stars from 0.5 to 5 stars. It is based on how much saturated fat, salt, sugars, and kilojoules the food contains.

In general, the more stars a food has the healthier it is. A 5-star breakfast cereal is a better choice than a 2-star cereal. The Health Star Rating is useful for comparing foods from similar food categories e.g. those that are displayed together, like cereals or breads. It can’t be used to compare different foods e.g. yoghurt with frozen lasagne.

The star system is not compulsory. Food manufacturers and retailers are responsible for correctly and accurate using the Health Star Rating system. There may be food products that are healthy but do not have the Health Star rating. Use the food label and ingredient list to help you determine if a food is good to eat.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: June 2022


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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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