What do food labels really mean?

23 August 2016 | Jacqui Jones

Reading food labels

I’m browsing the supermarket aisles in search of healthy cereals, snacks, yoghurts and anything else I can think of to feed the family. Alongside a trolley laden with fresh fruit, veg and lean meats that is!

Weighing up how to get the best bang for buck, I’ve got the price per unit thing down pat. But when it comes to what’s healthier and most nutritious, products are a bit harder to gauge. There’s stars, information panels, health claims and a host of other things to consider.

We’re told these things are designed to make it easy for consumers to make healthy choices. And they can assist. Provided you’re informed. Here’s our everyday guide to reading food labels.

 

Health Star Rating

Health Star Rating

You’ve probably seen the poster ads, as well as the front-of-pack labels on a range of foods, from cereals to yoghurts. The system rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to five stars, with the more stars representing the healthier choice.

Pros:

  • It’s highly visual.
  • Compares similar packaged food products.
  • Takes in to account energy (kilojoules), nutrients to limit (saturated fat, salt, and sugar) and positive nutrients (fibre, protein and fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content).
  • It has been developed by government.

Cons:

  • Voluntary for food manufacturers to display, therefore just because it doesn’t have stars doesn’t mean it’s not a healthier choice.
  • You can’t always compare different types of foods g. a yoghurt product can’t be compared to breakfast cereal, only to other yoghurts.
  • No ratings on fresh foods, such as fruit and vegetables as the rating is designed for packaged food.

Tips:

  • Use the Health Star Rating to compare similar food products.
  • Remember, a healthy balanced diet consists mainly of minimally processed food, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, nuts, seeds, legumes and water.
  • Use the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating for information about the amounts and kinds of food to eat for good health.
  • Limit the amount of packaged food in your trolley and pantry.

 

Nutrition information panel

Found on food packets and displays the amount per 100g (or 100mL if liquid) and per serve of energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, sugar and sodium (salt) in the food. Some panels also display other nutrients such as fibre or calcium.

Pros:

  • Mandatory for food manufacturers to display.
  • Helps consumers compare food products by looking at the 100g column and choosing alternatives low in saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
  • Can be used to compare foods in different categories, e.g. you can compare a yoghurt product to a breakfast cereal

Cons:

  • Serving sizes vary, therefore different serving sizes may be listed. E.g. a 200g tub of yoghurt may list a serving size of 100g, but most consumers would consider the whole 200g tub a standard serve.

Tips:

  • Use the 100g/100mL column when comparing products.

 

Ingredients list

Lists ingredients in order from the highest weight to the lowest. Food additives are listed by name or a numbering system.

Pros:

  • All manufactured food sold in Australia must display an ingredients list on the packaging.
  • Useful for looking for sources of added fat, sugar, salt and potential allergens.
  • If the product name or picture on the front includes an ingredient e.g. “strawberry” yoghurt then the percentage of that ingredient must be listed.

Cons:

  • Many other names may be used for fat, sugar and salt, e.g. shortening for fat, syrup for sugar and stock for salt.

Tips:

  • Avoid products that list sugar, fat or salt in the top three ingredients as the food will contain a high proportion of this ingredient.
  • Choose products with less ingredients as they are usually less processed.

 

Nutrition content and health claims

Nutrition content claims such as “high fibre” or “low fat” and health claims such as “calcium for healthy bones and teeth”.

Pros:

  • Nutrition content claims are only allowed on a product when the manufacturer can prove that the product contains that amount of nutrient.
  • Health claims are not permitted on foods high in saturated fat, sugars or salt.

Cons:

  • Claims about the nutrient content can be made on unhealthy products.
  • Claims may not tell the whole story. E.g. products with “low fat” claims could still be high in energy (kilojoules), sugars or salts.

Tips:

  • Read claims on food carefully and along with the Health Star Rating, the ingredients list and the nutrition information panel.
  • Watch out for labelling tricks. E.g. “light” or “lite” doesn’t necessarily mean low kilojoule or low fat – it may just be light in colour, taste or texture and “no added salt” just means that salt was not added but there could still be salt in the product from the ingredients used.

 

Endorsements and logos

Endorsements and approval stamps on foods to market products.

Pros:

  • May originate from an external organisation, e.g. the Glycaemic Index.

Cons:

  • May be developed by the manufacturer without any external approval.

Tips:

  • If in doubt, use the Health Star Rating, the ingredients list and nutrition information panel.

 

Why Cancer Council NSW has an interest in food labelling

Maintaining a healthy weight, eating well and being active can lower your cancer risk. So enjoying a healthy diet is key. Food labels can be confusing but they carry important information to help consumers make choices – ideally healthy ones – about food. 

 


Read more about food labeling

Find out more about how a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you avoid cancer.