Reading Food Labels
Most packaged foods sold in Australia are required by law to provide a clear and accurate food label that includes a Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). School Canteens will need to understand the Nutrition Information Panel on products to make decisions on foods suitable for sale.
Name or Description of the Food
Foods must be labelled with an accurate name or description. Labels or descriptions must not mislead consumers. Therefore a pumpkin soup must contain pumpkin!
Labels Must Tell the Truth
Suppliers must label food products with accurate minimum weights and measures information.
The NSW Department of Fair Trading regulates weights and measures declarations. Fair trading laws ensure that labels do not mislead. All labels must be true and correct, written in English and clearly readable. The words and pictures used on food labels are controlled by strict laws, to ensure they are not misleading.
Frequently Used Nutrition Claims: What do they mean?
1. Light or Lite - The characteristic, which makes the food ‘light’, must be stated on the label. READ CAREFULLY. This may not mean lower in fat or energy. For example ‘lite’ potato chips have the SAME AMOUNT OF FAT as other chips but they’ve been cut thinly!
2. No cholesterol or cholesterol free - This doesn’t mean low fat. Vegetable foods don’t contain cholesterol, animal foods do. For example, vegetable oil has no cholesterol but is 100% fat.
3. 90% fat-free - This doesn’t mean that this food has 90% less fat than the standard product – it simply means that this food is 10% fat.
4. Toasted - This usually means fat has been added during cooking or preparation. For example, toasted muesli will be higher in fat than un-toasted muesli.
5. Oven Baked - This does not have to mean anything at all. Sometimes the product is lower in fat than the standard product that does not say oven baked. Reading the nutrition information panel will help you determine the fat content.
6. Reduced Fat - This means the food has less fat than the standard product but this doesn’t always make it is a low fat food. For example, reduced fat cheese is better, but is still quite high in fat.
7. Diet or Low-joule - These foods usually have artificial sweeteners in them instead of sugar, which makes them lower in calories (eg diet soft drinks).
8. No Added Sugar - No simple sugars have been added. However the product may contain natural sugars eg fruit sugars.
9. Salt Reduced - These have less salt than the usual product but they may still be high in salt.
10. All Natural - Fat and oil are all natural but not necessarily good for our health.
11. Heart Foundation Tick - Foods with the tick are healthy food choices amongst food of a similar type. They meet Heart Foundation guidelines for total fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and where appropriate fibre. Not all companies make use of the tick even though their products may qualify.
Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
By law the NIP must show:
1. The nutrient content per serve and per 100g (or 100ml for liquids) for;
2. ENERGY (Kilojoules)
4. TOTAL FAT
5. SATURATED FAT
6. TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE
8. SODIUM (Salt)
9. The number of serves per package.
NOTE: Currently the FIBRE content of a food is NOT REQUIRED by law to be indicated on the NIP. This may make product decision-making difficult for cakes, muffins, sweet pastries, snack food bars and sweet biscuits. We suggest contacting the manufacturer using the contact details on the package.
The manufacturer determines the serving size listed on the NIP.
NOTE: The ‘serve size’ quoted on the bottle is not always the same serve size sold by the canteen or consumed by students. Some packets may contain more than “one serve”, eg a 500ml flavoured milk carton may list ‘serving size’ as 2 serves of 250ml!
Packaged foods will also carry labels, which show the percentage of the “key” or “characterising” ingredients in the food product, if they are present. A characterising ingredient is one that appears in the name of the product, is usually associated with the food and/or is emphasised on the food label in some way. This will enable you to compare similar products. For example, you can see from the ingredient list that this pumpkin soup contains 57% butternut pumpkin. Pumpkin is the characterising ingredient, as most people would buy this product thinking it either contains pumpkin or has a pumpkin flavour.
Ingredients must be listed in order of the amount, starting from the ingredient that is there in the largest amount, then the second highest and so on. In this soup, butternut pumpkin is the main ingredient. If you wanted to identify a food product high in fat and sugar you could also look at the ingredient list to help you. If fat or sugar are listed at the beginning of the ingredient list, this means that a fat or sugar ingredient make up most of the food. However, sometimes this is difficult to tell because another name is used instead of fat or sugar. See the “Ingredients in Disguise” fact page for further examples.
Labelling laws are good news for people with allergies or intolerance to food additives. The main foods, food ingredients or components of an ingredient that can cause severe adverse reactions (anaphylactic shock), such as peanuts and tree nuts, shellfish, finfish, milk, gluten, eggs, sesame and soybeans - must be declared on the label however small the amount. This declaration is usually in the ingredient list and in the case of this soup it is the cream (milk), natural flavours (soy and wheat) and traces of nuts.
There must also be a larger warning statement in type of not less than 3mm where people may be unaware of a health risk posed by an allergen in a food, for example, royal jelly, which can cause severe reactions in asthmatics.
Food additives play an important role in our food supply ensuring that our food is safe and meets the needs of consumers.
Food additives must be listed (within the ingredients list) by name or function and number eg sulphur dioxide OR preservative (220).
For more information and the full list of additives see the FSANZ website atwww.foodstandards.gov.au/foodmatters/foodadditives.cfm
Foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a ‘best before’ date. It may still be safe to eat those foods after the best before date but they may have lost quality and some nutrition. Foods that must be consumed before a certain date for health and safety reasons must have a ‘use by’ date. These foods can NOT be legally sold or consumed after this date. An exception is bread, which can be labelled with a ‘baked on’ date if its shelf life is less than seven days.
Storage and Cooking Information
If specific storage conditions are required to prevent a product from spoiling before its ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, manufacturers must include this information on the label eg store at or below -18ºC.
Also if specific cooking instructions need to be followed, eg do not microwave, to prevent food safety issues or food quality issues, this must also be included on the label.
Printing the Name and Business address of the manufacturer or importer as well as the food’s batch number (or date coding) on labels is mandatory. This allows for efficient product recalls.
Country of Origin
Packaged and unpackaged foods such as seafood, fruit and vegetables and unpackaged pork must state the country where it was made or produced.
The ACCC also has requirements for displaying ‘Product of (Country)’; Made in (Country)’ or Made in (Country) from local and imported ingredients’.
Are their any exceptions to the food labelling laws for products sold in canteens?
Yes, the following products are not required to have a label (however businesses are required to inform you of the contents of the food either verbally or in writing, on request):
- Unpackaged foods such as fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and nuts or food sold in a restaurant.
- Packaged whole or cut fresh fruit and vegetables (but not bean sprouts) where you can see the fruit or vegetables through the package.
- Food sold at a fund raising event for charitable purposes like a school fete.
- Food packaged in the presence of the purchaser/customer.
- Food made and packaged on the premises from where it is sold, for example at a bakers.
- Individual serve packages that are sold in a large package such as a 12 pack of corn chips, although the information has to be on the outer package.
Also, NIPs do not have to be on very small packages that are smaller than 100 sq cm (about the size of a large chewing gum package) or on foods with minimal nutrition like herbs, spices, tea or coffee.
Where can I get more information on Food Labelling requirements?
What to do if the product label is incomplete or unclear?
1. Contact the manufacturer using the contact details on the package.
2. Contact NSW Health.
3. Contact Food Standards Australia.