Understanding food labels

March 3, 2022 by Lisa Bywaters


Are you like me and automatically select the same items when buying groceries? That specific yoghurt, brand of orange juice, yummy cheese 😉?

There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re creatures of habit and know what we like. Also, we often want to shop as quickly as possible and get it over with 😄.

But every now and again, it’s a good idea to compare that yoghurt, orange juice, cheese or whatever, to other similar items available.

The ingredients list and nutrition labels can help you do this. They pack a lot of useful info into a tiny space. By reading this information you can see if the product you buy really is the best or healthiest choice for you.

For example, if you have high blood pressure, making sure the product you buy is low in salt is important. If you’re trying to lose weight, comparing the kilojoules, fats and sugars in different brands of foods will help you make a better choice. Or if you have an allergy or intolerance to an ingredient or food additive, you can avoid buying a product that contains that item.

In Australia, all manufactured food must provide nutrition and safety information on their labels.

This includes:

  • the name of the product and an accurate description of what it is
  • the brand’s name
  • an ingredients list (in order from largest to smallest by weight)
  • nutritional information (e.g. energy, fat, protein, sugars and salt)
  • use-by or best-before date
  • manufacturer details
  • weight
  • food allergy information
  • list of food additives
  • directions for use and storage
  • country in which the food was produced.

Obviously you’re not going to take the time to look at every one of these items every time you shop! But it’s helpful to look at the ingredients list and nutrition panel when looking at new products, and occasionally compare your trusty favourite with other similar items.

Ingredients list

All ingredients must be listed in order by weight, from largest to smallest. They also need to show the percentage of the key ingredient if it’s mentioned in the description. For example, a tomato pasta sauce may say 80% tomatoes, peanut butter 90% peanuts, raspberry yoghurt 10% raspberries etc. Other brands may have more or less tomatoes, peanuts or raspberries, so knowing the percentage is useful when comparing products.

Sometimes what’s known as compound ingredients are used in foods. They’re ingredients that are themselves made up of two or more ingredients. For example, in some food items (e.g. Tim Tams 🤤), milk chocolate is used. So all of the ingredients in milk chocolate – sugar, milk solids, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, vegetable oil, flavour – must be listed in the ingredient list, along with the other ingredients. However, if a compound ingredient makes up less than 5% of the final food, it doesn’t need to be listed unless it’s an additive or allergen.

Nutrition information panels

These panels provide the nutrient details, as well as serving sizes and number of servings per package. Some labels also display % daily intake. This helps you choose foods that are lower in fat, sugar and salt.

The nutrients listed are:

  • energy (kilojoules or calories)
  • protein
  • fat
  • saturated fat
  • carbohydrate
  • sugars – includes added and natural sugars (e.g. fructose in fruit)
  • sodium (salt).

Some nutrition panels may include other nutrients such as fibre, potassium, calcium or iron. For example, a manufacturer may add calcium to the panel if they state on their yoghurt packaging that it’s a good source of calcium.

Nutrients are displayed in a standard format showing the average amount per serve and per 100g (or 100mL if liquid).

This means you can look at the 100g column on two different brands of cheeses and compare the nutrients, helping you make the healthiest choice.

This diagram from Eatforhealth.gov.au provides a simple visualisation of what to look for in a nutrition panel.

As far as serving size, this is the average serving according to the manufacturer. For example, a packet of crispbread lists the servings per packet as approximately 18, and the serving size as 7g (1 piece). If you eat more or less than the suggested serving size, you’ll need to factor in the difference in the energy, fat, sugar etc that you’re consuming.

Health star ratings

You may have seen these on the packages of some foods. They bring together all of the info from the nutrition panel, and give the food a rating out of 5, with 5 being the healthiest. These are a guide to help you very quickly compare similar products.

Nutrition claims

Remember the milk ad from many years ago, when a man asks for milk at a corner store? The lady behind the counter rattles off the following: ‘Low fat, no fat, full cream, high calcium, high protein, soy, light, skim, omega-3, high calcium with vitamin d and folate or extra dollop?’ They’re just some of the nutrition claims that we see on the packaging of many food products. Like reduced fat, baked not fried, light/lite, salt reduced, all-natural, no added sugar etc. They can make it hard to understand which is the best, healthiest product for you.

Nutrition Australia (QLD) has a great article that can help you understand some of the more commonly used claims on packaging. Check out Reading food labels like a pro.

Understanding food labels can be a little tricky at first, but with a bit of practice (and a magnifying glass 😄) you’ll soon be able to decipher what it all means and make healthy food choices. And it’s important to remember that you don’t eat separate pieces of food in isolation. They’re all part of your daily/weekly meal plan. That means there’s room for the sometimes foods we all enjoy, as long as you consume them in moderation, and you’re aware of what’s in them.

Finally – remember there’s always help available. If you want to know more about choosing healthy food or need advice on diet in general, talk with your doctor and/or a dietitian.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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