Understanding Labels on Packaged Foods

Compulsory food labelling for packaged foods in Australia offers a huge range of information to Australian consumers about what you’re buying… but you have to know how to interpret labels to decipher any of this information!

You’re not alone if you think that understanding labels is difficult. With hundreds of additives listed by number, ingredients referred to by multiple names, and misleading claims like “natural” plastered on every second label, it’s hard to know what to look for. To understand food labels a bit better, let’s discover exactly what the aforementioned numbered additives are doing to your food….

What the labels actually tell you

Take a look at the label on a jar of Kraft Original Style Mayonnaise.

kraft mayo label

The nutritional information shows the data for both a standard serving size and for a 100 g serve of Mayonnaise. The 100 g column is particularly helpful, as you can easily use this column to work out the percentages of certain nutrients in foods, and compare nutritional quality between brands which may have different recommended serving sizes.

For example, this mayonnaise has a total of 21.6 grams of fat per 100 g, which means that it is more than 20% fat, – a large amount!

The label will show you the total kilojoules/calories per serve and per 100g, and the amount of protein the food contains. The fats shown are the total amount of fat in the food – including saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and trans fats – as well as the amount of saturated fat alone. The list should also list cholesterol, carbohydrates (total and sugars) and sodium.

Now let’s move on to the ingredients list.

Ingredients are listed according to weight, from highest to lowest. So essentially, the first few ingredients you see listed are the most prevalent in that packaged food – so make sure they’re good ingredients!

Manufacturers are required to specify percentages of the characterising ingredients of a food. So for example, the packaging of a strawberry yoghurt displays the percentage of strawberries contained in the yoghurt. The mayonnaise doesn’t have a characterising food ingredient, so is exempt from this rule.

Nutrition labels must also highlight ingredients that may pose a health risk to people who suffer from intolerances. The most common food intolerances are peanuts, wheat or milk.

Food additives

Further down the list of ingredients, you’ll notice some ingredients which are accompanied by numbers in brackets. These numbers represent different food additives, and conform to an international food additive identification system.

There are many different types of food additives which perform different functions in your food. In Australia, food additives must perform a specific function that a natural ingredient can’t do, such as enhancing the colour of a food or acting as a preservative.

Food additives are put through extensive testing before they’re deemed safe for selling to the Australian market. Many food additives occur naturally in some foods, such as Vitamin C or lecithin. Just remember, your body doesn’t know the difference between a chemical that is naturally present in your food, versus the same chemical which has been added to your food. This is why many cereals, breads, margarines and other products can be fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Food additive categories

So what are food additives and what do they do? Here’s a brief overview of common additives used in Australia:

Acidity regulators Help maintain acid levels of foods to prevent foods from going off. May also be used to change the flavour. Acidity regulators are not known to increase stomach acid or reflux.
Anti-caking agents Ensure particles of food don’t stick together.
Antioxidants Stop foods oxidising, or going off. This is particularly important for fats and oils which may become rancid when exposed to the air.
Bulking agents Increase the size of the food without increasing the kilojoule/calorie content.
Colourings Improve the colour of food.
Emulsifiers Prevent oil and water from separating into layers.
Flavour enhancers Enhance the flavour or taste of foods.
Humectants Reduce moisture loss in foods.
Preservatives Prevent foods from going off, and increase the shelf-life of foods.
Raising agents Increase the volume of foods, particularly baked goods like breads and cakes.
Sweeteners Substances which replace sugars and reduce the number of kilojoules/calories contained in a food.
Thickeners Improve the thickness and consistency of foods.

Food additives are generally used in very small quantities in processed foods. For more information on food additives, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand have released a helpful guide, called The official shoppers guide to food additives and labels, designed to help consumers better understand food additives and labels. It contains a complete breakdown of each of the food additives currently used within Australia.

Genetically modified and irradiated foods

By Australian law, all foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients must disclose this on their label or, if the food is not packaged, near the food’s point of purchase.

GM foods are modified using gene technology in an attempt to improve the quality or productivity rates of foods. For example, a corn plant may be modified to include a gene which makes it resistant to certain insects.

Cotton is the only GM crop produced in Australia. However some foods you can buy in Australia include imported GM ingredients, such as cotton, corn, canola, soy beans, sugar beets and potatoes.

Some GM foods are exempt from labelling requirements, such as ingredients used in foods in restaurants, hotels or takeaway food outlets.

Food irradiation is a food processing technique where foods are exposed to a source of ionising energy. The process is designed to kill bacteria which, in turn, preserves the food.

Contrary to popular belief, food irradiation does not make food radioactive. Once the ionising process is complete, the energy doesn’t linger in the food. Any chemical changes to the composition of the food are minimal.

Like GM foods, food irradiation must be disclosed on the label of packaged foods. At present in Australia and New Zealand, 26 fruit and vegetables, plus herbs and spices (and herbal infusions) have been approved for irradiation. These foods can be irradiated to treat for pests.

Health claims on food packaging

Many food products display claims on their labels saying they’re  97% fat-free, low-fat, healthy or somehow good for you. Under current laws, product labels are permitted to declare the food is “good for you”, but can’t claim it can prevent certain conditions. For example, a milk carton can say milk is a good source of calcium, but not that it prevents osteoporosis.

Reducing saturated fat in your diet is something to aim for, so when comparing products it’s generally a good idea to choose a low-fat alternative if available. However, some products may be labelled as “reduced-fat”, yet still contain higher amounts of fat than other foods. For example, some reduced-fat ice creams may still have a relatively high fat content compared to other desserts. Look for the lowest fat content where possible.

For more information about food labelling, visit Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

The information in this article has been sourced from Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

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