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Understanding food labels

9-minute read

Key facts

  • In Australia, by law, all manufactured foods have a label.
  • Food labels have important information that show safety and nutrition information and include allergen information.
  • Food labels help you make informed decisions about the food you buy and eat.
  • Food labels also guide you on how to store food safely.
  • The Health Star Rating is a guide to help you make healthier choices.

What information is on the food label?

Food labels have lots of useful information to help you make healthy food choices and so that you can make nutritious meals for your child.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand have set food standards. All statements and claims on foods sold in Australia must meet these standards. They must show:

  • the nutrition information panel
  • percentage of key ingredients
  • the accurate product name and description
  • information for people with allergies
  • date marking and the directions for storage
  • the ingredients list
  • any additives

All food labels are required to be truthful. They must not contain any misleading details. Any health or nutrition claims about the content of certain ingredients must be on the label.

There are rules that cover all food labels. The food label must be:

  • written in English
  • able to be clearly seen from the background packaging

The country of origin must also be stated on the label.

Product name and description

All foods must have the correct name. For example, a food called 'Strawberry Snack Bar' must contain strawberries, not just strawberry flavouring.

Date marking and directions for storage

Date marking is either with a '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. 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 keep 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 allowed for bread. This is if its shelf life is less than 7 days.

Foods that you can eat for at least 2 years after they are made, such as canned foods, do not need any date marking.

All food must have storage instructions until the best-before or use-by date. For example:

  • milk — 'Store below 4°C'
  • frozen lasagne — 'Cook thoroughly before eating'

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.

Food additives

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

  • colour — add or restore colour
  • flavour — increase the taste
  • humectant — reduce moisture loss
  • preservative — stop the food from spoiling (going 'off' or bad)
  • thickener — increase the consistency

Any genetically modified (GM) ingredients will be labelled with the words 'genetically modified'. This will appear in the product name or alongside the relevant item on the ingredients list.

All GM foods sold in Australia must undergo a safety test by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Health and nutrition claims

Health and nutrition claims are statements made by food businesses.

Some foods claim to have a specific health benefit. Health claims are not allowed to be used if foods are high in saturated fat, sugar or salt.

Nutrition content claims talk about what nutrients a food has such as saying, 'low in fat'. These need to meet specific standards.

Allergens

Food labels must state information about common allergens to help people find them easily. These include:

  • egg
  • fish
  • crustacean
  • milk
  • peanut
  • sesame
  • soy

Allergens should be written in:

  • the statement of ingredients in bold font and a font size no smaller than what is used for other ingredients
  • a separate allergen summary statement also in bold starting with the word 'contains' directly next to the statement of ingredients

If wheat, barley, oats and rye contain gluten it must be declared as 'gluten' in the summary statement.

Sulphites also need to be declared when added in amounts equal to or more than 10 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg). This is because some people with asthma react badly to sulphite preservatives.

Bee products must have a warning or advisory statement.

If your child has an allergy, it is important to read food labels and check the ingredients list when buying food. Be sure to also tell other adults who care for your child about their food allergies.

How do I read the nutrition information panel?

Packaged foods have a nutrition information panel that shows the amount of:

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

You do not need nutrition information panels for:

  • unpackaged foods
  • very small packets such as herbs, spices, tea and coffee

'Sugars' in the nutrition information panel include added sugars as well as naturally occurring sugar. Some products saying 'no added sugar' may have high levels of natural sugars.

It is important that your child gets the nutrients they need for their development. You should consider the nutritional content of a food when preparing a healthy diet for your child.

If you are not sure about which nutrients are important for your child and how much they need, you can check the Australian Dietary Guidelines, a dietitian or see your doctor.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What is the Health Star Rating (HSR) system?

The Health Star Rating System is a quick, front-of-package way to help you compare the nutrition of packaged foods.

Health Star Rating System (HSR)
And example of a Health Star Rating for packaged food. Watch the video to on how to read and compare the Health Star Rating of packaged products.

The system rates the food 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, for example, a 5-star breakfast cereal is a better choice than a 2-star cereal.

The Health Star Rating can be used for comparing foods from similar food categories, for example, those that are displayed together, like cereals or breads.

The Health Star Rating is a guide to help you make healthier choices. For a healthy balanced diet you need to eat a range of nutritious foods and a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables which usually don't have a Health Star Rating.

Resources and support

Find more information about food labelling on the Food Standards Australian website or at eat for health.

Looking for information for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?

For guidelines and illustrations on healthy eat tips for Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander people you can look at the eat for health factsheet.

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: December 2023


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