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How to read food labels

4-minute read

What information is on the food label?

In Australia, the law requires all manufactured foods to carry labels containing safety and nutrition information. This information helps you to make decisions about the food you buy and eat so you can follow a healthy diet.

The label will tell you:

  • the name of the product, describing accurately what it is
  • the brand name
  • what ingredients it contains (listed in order from largest to smallest by weight)
  • nutritional information (such as average amount of energy, fat, protein, sugars and salt)
  • percentage labelling (how much of the main ingredients it contains, so you can compare it to other products)
  • use-by or best-before date
  • details of the manufacturer
  • how much it weighs
  • information for people with food allergies
  • a list of food additives
  • directions for use and storage
  • the country where the food was produced

Understanding nutrition claims

Some labels tell you what percentage of the recommended daily intake is provided by 1 serve of the product. This helps you to work out how the food fits into a balanced diet. Read more about recommended daily intakes for adults and recommended daily intakes for children.

The label may make a number of nutrition claims such as 'gluten free', 'low GI', 'low fat', 'reduced salt' or 'high fibre'. These mean the product meets strict criteria set by the government.

But just because a product can make a nutrition claim doesn't mean it is healthy. For example, a product that is 'low fat' may have more kilojoules than another similar product. Check the Nutrition Information Panel to see how the product compares.

How to read the Nutrition Information Panel

The Nutrition Information Panel tells you the size of a standard serving of the product and which nutrients are contained in that serving. You can use the label to compare the product with what's in similar packaged foods.

Look out for information about:

  • Energy: A kilojoule is a measure of energy. To lose weight, you need to eat and drink fewer kilojoules (kJ) than you use. You should limit your intake of discretionary or junk foods — i.e. those that have more than 600kJ per serve.
  • Protein
  • Fat (total): Fat is higher in kilojoules than other nutrients, so you should limit the total amount you eat.
  • Saturated fat: There are different types of fats. Saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and high blood cholesterol, so it is especially important to choose foods low in saturated fat.
  • Carbohydrate (total): Carbohydrates are found in all fruit and vegetables, all breads and grain products, and sugar and sugary foods. You need carbohydrates for energy.
  • Sugar: Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. It is better to choose healthier carbohydrates and to limit foods that are high in added sugars.
  • Fibre: High fibre foods such as wholegrain bread and cereals improve digestion and help you to feel full.
  • Sodium: This tells you how much salt the product contains. Eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure and can lead to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Comparing products

To compare similar products, it is best to look in the column on the Nutrition Information Panel that states the quantity of a nutrient per 100g or per 100ml so you know you are comparing the same thing.

For health, try to choose products that have lower levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium (salt) per 100g, and higher levels of fibre.

It’s a good idea to look at the food as a whole, rather than just one nutrient, when comparing products.

Health Star Rating system

The Health Star Rating on the front of the pack is designed to help you choose healthier packaged foods at a glance.

Health Star Rating System (HSR)

Packaged foods are rated at between ½ and 5 stars. The rating is calculated according to ingredients that increase the risk of obesity and contribute to other chronic diseases. The more stars, the healthier the product.

The health stars are designed to help you compare similar packaged products. For example, they might help you choose the healthiest breakfast cereal, but not to compare breakfast cereal with yoghurt.

Remember, the Health Star Rating is a guide to help you make healthier choices of packaged foods. For a healthy, balanced diet, you also need to eat lean meats and fresh fruit and vegetables, which usually don’t have a Health Star Rating.

For more information on how to use the Health Star Rating, visit their website.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021


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