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How to read food labels correctly in the supermarket


happy family shopping vegeatables at supermarket

Credit:123RF

Look around your supermarket today and what do you see? Packets and jars and tins of food screaming “pick me”, “buy me”, “I’m the best”. Packaging promising food that is “a delicious snack the whole family can enjoy”, “full of the goodness of wholesome grains”, “flavour you can see”, “fresh chopped taste”. It all sounds so good.

All packaged products must have an ingredients list showing everything in that product, including water.

But spend time browsing the shelves for the most nutritious and healthy products and things start to get confusing: “fresh herbs” in a squeezy tube of stuff that’s only 40 per cent actual herb; concentrated fruit drink containing 25 per cent fruit, of which 10 per cent is fruit peel extract; “lite” cereals higher in kilojoules than their non-lite neighbours. What’s going on?

All the information on food packets can be split into two groups: first, that which manufacturers are legally required to include; and second, that which manufacturing companies choose to include, ie the marketing spiel. The legally required information is really useful in making the best choices for you and your family. The marketing spiel, on the other hand, is designed to entice you to buy and can get in the way of your decision making.

In Australia, the regulation of food labelling (what can and can’t be said about a product) is the domain of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and is spelled out in the Food Standards Code. Over the past five years, significant changes have been made to the code and more information has become available to consumers.

Legal requirements for all food labels

By law, all food labels must include the following information printed in clear, legible English:

  • Product name
  • Country of origin
  • Use-by/best-before or baked-on date
  • List of ingredients
  • Nutrition panel
  • Allergens
  • Contact name and address for feedback and complaints
  • The lot or batch number of the product in case of recalls
  • Weight or volume in mg or ml.

More explanation of these points will follow, but legally that’s it. The rest of the words, pictures and information is part of the marketing of the product.

What’s in a name?

All products have a name that tells you what you are buying. Manufacturers can choose the name of their product but the name must be accurate and not misleading. For example, “apricot yoghurt” must contain apricot; a chicken pie must contain chicken.

For some products there are simple, legally defined “recipes” — standard formulas that give the basic composition of a particular food stuff: for example, “peanut butter” must contain at least 85 per cent peanuts. Chocolate, bread and icecream are other foods with legally defined recipes.

This ensures that you, the consumer, are not being misled and are getting what you want.

Made in…

According to the Food Standards Code, labels must include the country of origin of that product. So if you want to buy Australian, or believe Spain makes the best olive oil, this part of the Code is designed to help with those choices. Unfortunately, this classification is a bit of a shambles and claims can be misleading. The words “made” and “produced” are not very well defined. However, as a guide, if you want to buy Australian, choose foods labelled “product of Australia”. This means each significant ingredient has come from Australia and all or most of the processing has occurred here. The phrase “made in Australia” means only 50 per cent of production costs have to be incurred in Australia.

Use-by or best-before date

Until recently, the “use by” and “best before” dates were only a guide to how long the unopened food would retain its quality and food could legally be sold after its use-by date. This was changed in 2003 and the use-by date is now the point at which the food actually becomes unsafe to eat — ie, it’s the date the food goes off. So you do need to throw out those old foods lurking in the back of your pantry. If past the use-by date, even if they look and smell OK, they are not safe to eat.

Most other foods have a “best before” date on their label; this is a guide to how long that food is at peak quality. After the best-before date it’s still safe to eat but there will be a decline in quality, taste and texture. Best-before labels are found on breakfast cereals, biscuits, muesli bars and so on.

Bread that has a shelf life of less than seven days often has a “baked on” or “baked for” date on the label, instead of a best-before date. This gives an indication of how fresh the bread is.

List of ingredients

All packaged products must have an ingredients list showing everything in that product, including water. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if rolled oats are the first ingredient listed in your muesli, they are the primary ingredient in that product.

One of the really useful changes made in 2003 means the ingredients list must now show the percentage of what are called “characterising ingredients”. These are the ingredients that are fundamental to the nature of the product; for example, the avocado in guacamole, the orange in orange juice and the peanuts in peanut butter. Characterising ingredients also include any ingredient depicted on the packaging of the product, whether that be in words, pictures or graphics.

Icecream labels must show the percentage of milk fat, one of its characterising ingredients.

The ingredients list of apple blueberry muesli therefore has to specify the percentage of both apple and blueberry. If you buy a bottle of tropical juice and there is a mango pictured on the label, the ingredients list must show the percentage of mango. Icecream labels must show the percentage of milk fat, one of its characterising ingredients.

Now it’s possible to see, for instance, that not all avocado dips are created equal, with the percentage of avocado ranging from 1 to 65 per cent in one supermarket I checked. You can also discover that lots of canned fish contains less than 50 per cent fish; many baby foods contain only small amounts of their characterising ingredients; fruit juices and purees often contain only tiny percentages of some fruits.

Before 2003 it was harder to compare like with like to make a decision about which was better and to work out why some products were cheaper than others. Now this can be determined by comparing the ingredients of similar products. This has been one of the most important and enlightening aspects of the food labelling law changes. It also means food manufacturers have had to ’fess up and show how much of an ingredient is in their packet and how true their claims about the food actually are.

Genetically modified

The list of ingredients must also show if any are from genetically modified (GM) sources. There are currently six GM foods approved for consumption in Australia: cotton oil, canola, corn, soy, sugar and potato, with soy and canola the most frequently used. GM ingredients are shown on the ingredients list in brackets — for example, “corn starch (genetically modified)”. Alternatively, at supermarket delicatessens, signs should indicate products containing GM ingredients.

There are currently about a dozen products on supermarket shelves that contain GM ingredients, primarily processed foods such as donuts, mudcake, cake icing, several types of chicken loaf and frozen chicken.

If you wish to avoid GM foods, first check the labels. But you are also more likely to avoid GM foods if you steer clear of processed products and eat a wholefood diet.

Nutrition information panel

All food packaging has a nutrition information panel that lists the quantity of various nutrients, both in an average serve and also in 100g or 100ml. This is a really useful tool for comparing products and making decisions about which are the best foods for you. It enables you to check on the protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre and sodium content of all packaged foods. You can also check the level of saturated fats and how much of the carbohydrate is made up of sugars.

When comparing products, look at the nutrient amounts per 100g or 100ml measurements. Serving sizes vary enormously between products; your idea of a serving size might be entirely different from the manufacturer’s. Manufacturers also sometimes use serving-size measures to show their product in a better light. Some 375ml cans of drink are listed as having 1.88 servings per package, though most people would see a can of drink as one serve. Yoghurts are often guilty of this, with some individual 200g tubs listed as having two serves per package — again, most people would regard it as one serve, particularly given it’s not resealable.

As a guide, when comparing products:

  • Low fat is less than 3g of fat per 100g.
  • High fibre is at least 4g of fibre per serve (make sure it’s the serving size you would eat, not just the manufacturer’s recommendation).
  • Low salt is less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
  • Low sugar is less than 5g of sugar per 100g.

By learning to read and understand nutrition information panels you can select or reject foods that don’t fit your dietary requirements. For example, if you’re trying to watch the fat in your diet, or keep your salt levels in check, or eat more fibre, it’s useful to know what is a lot or a little of each of these.

Allergens

Another change is that many potential allergens are now listed on food labels, no matter how small the amount. If a product contains peanuts, other nuts, seafood, fish, milk, gluten, eggs or soybeans, this must be shown on the label. While an important step for allergy sufferers, in practice it has further restricted the foods available to people with allergies. Instead of ensuring products are safe, many manufacturers take the easy option and label their products “may contain…”. In this way, they can avoid more responsible manufacturing processes such as effectively segregating ingredients during production, cleaning equipment properly and knowing where their ingredients are from.

These play-it-safe strategies mean many people end up avoiding foods because of the potential risk, or alternatively ignoring the warnings altogether, neither of which are satisfactory outcomes.

Organic?

FSANZ does not currently regulate use of the word “organic”. Instead, there’s an industry standard, overseen by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). AQIS has accredited a number of different bodies to certify organic products, such as the Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (DEMETER), National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) and a number of others.

Beware, as there’s a number of foods out there labelled “organic” that are not. To be sure, look for the certifying authority’s logo and accreditation number.

The marketing information

Nutrition claims

A lot of manufacturers make claims about the nutritional value of their products that blur the boundaries between accuracy and marketing: “rich in the energy food for your body”, “contains the goodness of milk”, “high in dietary fibre to keep your body in great shape”. Phrases like these are emotive, tapping into our desire to be healthy and do the best for ourselves and our family. However they are often meaningless marketing statements, so take most nutrition claims with a grain of salt.

Ask yourself what the nutrition claims are not saying. If a product is promoted as “low in fat”, the marketing may not be telling you that it’s also high in sugar, kilojoules and salt.

Fresh, pure and real

Words like “fresh”, “pure”, “real”, “gourmet”, “premium” and “homemade” are used by manufacturers to hint that their products are of special quality and better than their competitors. They set up expectations about the quality of that product. In a survey conducted by Choice magazine, 94 per cent of respondents’ choices were affected by use of the word “fresh” on a product.

The problem is that none of these words has a legal definition. Manufacturers can use them even though the product may be virtually the same as other brands on the supermarket shelf. So, again, try to ignore these words and phrases, as they tell you little about the product. Instead, refer to the nutrition panel to verify the suitability of the product for you.

Light, lite and fat-free

We all know too much fat is bad, and this is one aspect many food manufacturers have tapped into. On the supermarket shelves there’s an abundance of products claiming to be healthy based on their fat content. Watch out, many of these claims are misleading.

Products claimed to be “low fat” must contain less than 3 per cent fat (less than 1.5 per cent if it’s a drink). A “fat free” product must have no more than 0.15 per cent fat. “Reduced fat” is not the same; it may simply be lower in fat than other similar products or other foods in the manufacturer’s range. So check the nutrition panels of similar products to make a comparison.

“Light” and “lite” are misleading and commonly used terms. They can be used to mean light in taste and colour (for example light olive oil). Alternatively, the use of these terms may mean the product is lower in kilojoules than similar products but may still be high in fat and kilojoules overall.

And remember that a product that’s 92 per cent fat free still contains 8 per cent fat, which is a lot. Products that are “baked not fried” may sound healthier, but check the nutrition panel as those baked biscuits and snacks often contain a lot of fat.

Health claims

At present, the Food Standards Code does not allow health claims to be made about packaged foods. The only exception is food fortified with folate for preventing birth defects. Currently, FSANZ is reviewing this part of the code and in the near future more health claims may be allowed — for example, about calcium and bone health; sodium intake and blood pressure; saturated and trans fatty acids and LDL-cholesterol levels.

While health claims seem a good idea because they may be helping us to make better food choices, generally they are too simplistic to be meaningful and tend to create confusion rather than clarity. Most of these phrases are on products that simply do not contain enough of the nutrient to have a significant health benefit. Most examples are also highly processed foods being given an image overhaul.

Disguising the baddies (fats, sugars, sodium)

Another way products can appear to be better than they are is when fats, sugars and sodium are in disguise under different names. In the list of ingredients, “salt” may be right at the end, but the product may still contain a lot of sodium disguised as other ingredients. Similarly, fats and sugars often travel incognito as other ingredients.

Other names for fats Other names for sugars Other names for sodium
butter corn syrup MSG (monosodium glutamate)
full-cream milk powder dextrose salt
lard fructose sodium chloride
margarine glucose syrup soy sauce
mono-, di- and tri- golden syrup yeast extract
glycerides honey
shortening malt
vegetable oil molasses
sucrose

One of my favourite examples of disguised sugars is a tube of mixed herbs in a paste. These “herbs” contain both glucose and fructose that add up to a startling 20 per cent sugars — 100 per cent more than fresh herbs should contain! Tinned soups also often contain disguised sodium, with salt, yeast extract and soy sauce frequently listed in the ingredients.

To judge a product, therefore, look at the nutrition panel and compare the total amounts of fat, sugar and salt/sodium per 100g. This is a more reliable guide to how low (or high) a product is in fat, sugar and salt/sodium.

What to do from here?

Now you’re armed with the information you need to read product labels, here’s what to do next:

  1. Be sceptical.
  2. Decide what you want from your food and what nutrition qualities you are looking for. Are you trying to eat low-fat and low-sodium foods, or is fibre more important?
  3. Next time you go shopping, schedule an extra 10 minutes into the trip to do some food label detective work.
  4. Concentrate on one food group at a time. For example, start with your breakfast cereal. Have a look at the brand you buy and compare it to two or three similar products.
  5. Look at the ingredients list. Are the better ingredients first? Are the important ingredients in the first half of the list?
  6. Look at the nutrition panel, comparing the quantities of fat, salt, fibre and sugar per 100g of the product.

Kathryn Elliott is a naturopath with a practice in The Strand Arcade, Sydney CBD. Her clients have health issues ranging from menstrual problems through to chronic fatigue, insomnia and stress management. Kathryn is also a keen chef and foodie, having previously run a successful catering business, and she contributes recipes to various publications including Life etc (ABC/Universal Magazines). E: kathryn@strandnatural.com.au.