SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Best-before date indicates how long food will remain of good quality – food is still safe to eat after this date.
- Do not eat food after the use-by date because it may be unsafe to eat.
- Ingredients are listed on products in descending order by weight so that the first ingredient listed is always present in the largest amount and can be useful when comparing products. Fats, sugars and salt may be listed under several different names.
- Using the 'per 100g' or 'per 100mL' column of the nutrition information panel on food packages is the best way to compare similar products.
- Some terms and symbols used by manufacturers can be misleading but nutrition claims and health claims on food labels must meet strict guidelines.
- Percentage Daily Intake (%DI) and Health Star Rating (HSR) symbols on labels can be useful to measure nutrient amounts of some products, provided they are used correctly, and their limitations are understood.
What are food labels?
Food labels carry useful information to help you make informed choices about what you and your family eat and drink. Most packaged foods are required to have a label with this information, but the information required depends on the food type.
The food label will tell you all sorts of information, including:
- what the food is
- manufacturer’s details
- nutrition information
- weights and measures of product
- date marking
- directions for use and storage
- country of origin
- allergens and additives
- any nutrition and health claims.
Some foods and drinks will have additional labelling requirements.
Some foods that are unlabelled (for example fresh fruit and vegetables or foods bought somewhere where they are made, such as bread at a bakery) may still be provided but could be on display with the food or provided if you ask for it.
Use-by and best-before dates on food labels
Foods with a shelf life of less than 2 years must have a best-before or use-by date. These terms mean different things.
Best-before date on food labels
The best-before date refers to food quality – food stored in the recommended way will remain of good quality until that date.
Once the best-before date has passed, the food may still be safe to consume, but it may have lost some quality and nutritional value.
Products with a best-before date can legally be sold after that date, provided the product is still fit for human consumption.
Use-by date on food labels
By contrast, foods that should not be consumed after a certain date for health and safety reasons must have a use-by date.
This means they cannot be sold after that date. You will find use-by dates on perishables such as meat, fish and dairy products.
Baked product labels
Bread is an exception to this rule as it can carry a ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ date if its shelf life is less than 7 days. This is so you can tell how fresh the food is.
When is food is okay to eat?
The best way to tell whether food is safe to eat is to:
• Check the use-by or best-before date when food shopping.
• Keep an eye on the use-by or best-before dates on the food in your cupboards, refrigerator and freezer.
• Never eat any food that is past its use-by date, even if it looks and smells okay.
List of ingredients on food labels
All ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including added water. Remember:
- The first ingredient listed is present in the largest amount by weight.
- The last ingredient listed is present in the least amount by weight.
What are compound ingredients?
Some ingredients used in foods are called ‘compound ingredients’. These are ingredients made by a mixture of other ingredients. For example, chocolate (cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar) or pasta (flour, egg, water).
On food labels, the ingredient list must contain all ingredients including those that make up compound ingredients. For example, chocolate chip ice-cream lists the ingredients that make up ice-cream, but it also contains chocolate, so the ingredients that make up chocolate are listed too (cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar).
If an ingredient makes up less than 5% of the food, it does not have to be listed. Likewise, any compound ingredients that make up less than 5% of the product, can just be listed as the compound ingredient rather than all of its own ingredients – for example ‘chocolate’ (rather than cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar) in a chocolate chip ice cream.
This 5% rule does not apply to any additive or allergen, including if they are part of a compound ingredient – these must be listed no matter how small the amount.
Percentage labelling ingredients on food labels
Most packaged foods must show the percentage of the characterising ingredient(s) or component(s) of a food. For example, a jar of peanut butter might say 85% peanuts while another might be 100% peanuts.
This information can be useful when comparing different products. The cocoa solids in chocolate is an example of a characterising component (for example 35% cocoa solids).
Some foods do not have any characterising ingredients or components, such as cheese or white bread.
How to read the ingredient list to choose healthier foods
The ingredient list is a great place to start when choosing healthier foods. Keep in mind that manufacturers can use a variety of different ingredients or forms that may contribute fats, sugars and salt to products.
Saturated and other added fats
(Note: terms such as ‘oven fried’ and ‘baked’ or ‘toasted’ imply that fat has been used during food preparation.)
(Note: look for ingredients ending in ‘-ose’ or ‘-tol’)
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Food additives can be used to improve quality of a food or improve the flavour or appearance of a food. They must be used in the lowest possible quantity to achieve their purpose.
In most cases, a chemical name or food additive number will be listed after the class. Enzymes and most flavourings only need to list their class name.
- colour (tartrazine)
- colour (102)
- preservative (200)
- emulsifier (lecithin).
The same food additive numbering system is used throughout the world.
Unpackaged foods and foods in small packages (with a surface area of less than 100cm2) are not required to carry a list of ingredients and therefore, do not need to list any additives.
Additives included in compound ingredients (that make up less than 5% of the food) do not have to be listed, unless the additives in the compound ingredient perform a specific purpose in the final product.
However, any additive that is also an allergen, must be declared, regardless of quantity.
Nutrition information panel (NIP)
The nutrition information panel (NIP) tells you the quantity of various nutrients a food contains per serve, as well as per 100 g or 100 ml.
Serving size is determined by the manufacturer and will often vary among products. They may not always reflect the amount typically eaten in one sitting (which can make a product appear less unhealthy).
Under labelling laws introduced in Australia in 2003, virtually all manufactured foods must carry an NIP. There are exceptions to the labelling requirements, such as:
- very small packages and foods like herbs, spices, salt, tea and coffee
- single ingredient foods (such as fresh fruit and vegetables, water and vinegar)
- food sold at fundraising events
- food sold unpackaged (if a nutrition claim such as a 'good source of calcium' is not made)
- food made and packaged at the point of sale.
Nutrients listed in the NIP
The NIP provides information on 7 nutrients:
- energy (in kilojoules)
- total fat
- saturated fat
- total carbohydrates
Other nutrients such as fibre, potassium, calcium and iron may be listed in the NIP if a claim is made on the label. For example, if a food claims to be a ‘good source of calcium’, then the amount of calcium in the product must be listed in the NIP.
Using the NIP to choose healthier products
Nutrients are displayed in a standard format – amount per serve and per 100g (or 100ml if liquid).
Another way to look at these numbers is to think of them as percentages. For example, 35g of sugar means the product contains 35% sugar.
When comparing products, it’s best to use the ‘per 100g’ or ‘per 100ml’ value because serving size can differ between manufacturers. For example:
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Nutrition claims on food labels
Don’t be misled, terms used by manufacturers are often misleading. For example:
- The term ‘light’ or ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is low in fat or . The term ‘light’ may refer to the texture, colour or taste of the product. The characteristic that makes the food ‘light’ must be stated on the label.
- The claims ‘no cholesterol’, ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’ on foods derived from plants (like margarine and oil) are meaningless because all plant foods contain virtually no cholesterol. However, some can be high in fat and can contribute to weight gain if used too generously.
- If an item claims to be 93% fat free, it actually contains 7% fat, but it looks so much better the other way.
- ‘Baked not fried’ sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat – check the nutrition information panel to be sure.
- ‘Fresh’ actually means the product hasn’t been preserved by freezing, canning, high-temperature or chemical treatment. However, it may have been refrigerated and spent time in processing and transport.
Nutrition and health claims on food labels must meet guidelines
Nutrition content claims make statements about certain nutrients or substances in a food (for example, ‘high in calcium’).
For a manufacturer to make various claims, their products must meet various guidelines including:
- No added sugar – products must not contain added sugar, but may contain natural sugars.
- Reduced fat or salt – should be at least a 25% reduction from the original product.
- Low fat – must contain less than 3% fat for solid foods (1.5% for liquid foods).
- Fat free – must be less than 0.15% fat.
- Percentage of fat – remember 80% fat free is the same as 20% fat, which is a large amount.
- Good source of – must contain no less than 25% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for that vitamin or mineral.
Health claims can also be made about a food product and relate to a nutrient or substance in a food, and its effect on health. There are 2 types of health claims:
- General level health claims demonstrate the effect on a health function due to a nutrient or substance that is present in a food. Such as ‘calcium is good for bones’.
- High level health claims refer to a serious disease or biomarker and its relationship to a nutrient or substance according to scientific research. For example, diets high in calcium can reduce the risk of . There are only 13 pre-approved high level health claims that can be made in Australia.
Voluntary labelling – Percentage Daily Intake (%DI) and Health Star Rating (HSR)
Some manufacturers voluntarily display additional symbols related to the nutrition content of the product.
Percentage Daily Intake %DI and Heath Star Rating (HSR symbols) are voluntary labelling systems. Although these symbols can be helpful when selecting foods, it is important to use them alongside other labelling (such as NIPs and ingredient lists) as there may in fact be healthier alternatives that don’t use these labels.
Percentage Daily Intake (%DI)
Percentage Daily Intake (%DI) symbols display a product’s nutrient amount as one serving, and the percentage of an average adult’s requirements that it provides.
These symbols display energy (kilojoules), and other nutrients (such as fat, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and a vitamin or mineral).
Keep in mind, %DI is based on serving size. It can be difficult to use when comparing products because serving sizes vary as they are set by manufacturers .
It is best to use the ‘per 100g’ or ‘per 100ml’ value in the NIP when comparing products.
Also, %DI labelling can make some products seem healthier by presenting information based on smaller serving sizes than what would be typically consumed in one sitting.
Health Star Rating (HSR) system
The Health Star Rating (HSR) system is a government-led front-of-pack labelling system that rates the overall nutrition content of packaged food from ½ a star to 5 stars. The more stars a product has, the healthier it is.
HSR labels either appear by themselves or along with specific nutritional information:
The key to using HSR stars is to compare similar products – such as, between 2 different types of yoghurt, rather than between a type of yoghurt and a loaf of bread.
Many foods that should regularly be eaten as part of a healthy diet don’t use HSRs. This includes fresh fruit and vegetables, foods not intended to be eaten as is (such as flour) and others (such as tea, vinegar and those that don’t require NIPs).
Allergens on food labels
Food labels are important for people with food allergies or intolerance. The main foods or ingredients that may cause severe adverse reactions must be declared on the label no matter how small the amount.
Common foods that may cause allergies include:
• peanuts and other nuts
• fish and shellfish
• sesame seeds
From May 2018, lupin must also be declared as an allergen.
Other possible health risks
Likewise, products containing sulphites at 10 or more mg/kg of food, must declare this on the label.
There must also be information to alert people of a possible health risk from some ingredients – including, aspartame, quinine, caffeine, guarana, royal jelly, unpasteurised milk or egg.
Any foods and ingredients derived from allergenic sources that have been assessed as safe for consumers who would otherwise be sensitive (such as glucose syrup made from wheat starch or soy derivatives) do not need to be declared on the label.
‘May contain’ labelling
Some labels may also state ‘may contain’. This is because there is a possibility that traces of an allergen may be present in a food unintentionally – such as food processed on the same equipment as products that contain nuts. However, these are voluntary statements made by food manufacturers and are not regulated by FSANZ.
Country of origin on food labels
Since 1 July 2018, country of origin labelling has fallen under the Australian Consumer Law rather than FSANZ. Under this law, most foods and drinks for retail sale must show country of origin details on their labels or on in-store packaging.
This type of labelling depends on whether the product was grown, produced, made or packaged in Australia or overseas. It also depends on whether the food is a ‘priority’ or ‘non-priority’ and how it is displayed for sale.
- Grown in – where the ingredients are from and will often be used on fresh foods, as well as foods that contain many ingredients (for example the tomatoes in pasta sauce).
- Produced in – where the ingredients come from as well as where any processing has happened (for example, wheat grown and then processed into pasta). Both processed and fresh foods tend to use this claim.
- Made in – refers to the manufacturing process that the food was produced with.
Most foods are priority foods – including vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, seafood, bread, nuts, cereals, honey and juice.
When priority foods are grown, produced or made in Australia, their country of origin labels will display a kangaroo in a green triangle and a bar chart which says what shows the proportion of the food is Australian.
Only priority foods that are produced or grown using 100% Australian ingredients can use the produced or grown in Australia label.
Imported foods do not have to use the same country or origin labelling but like non-priority foods, must include a text statement about where the food was grown, produced, made or packaged.
Some manufacturers will include other logos, symbols or statements such as ‘Proudly Australian owned’ but this is up to the manufacturer. They must be clear, accurate and truthful.
Foods from cafes, restaurants, schools, takeaway shops and caterers do not have to show country of origin labelling.
There are a range of other symbols that manufacturers may include on products – some of which are standardised (but may or may not be regulated).
Kilojoule (energy) labelling on unpackaged, ready-to-eat foods
From 1 May 2018, the Victorian Government requires large chain food businesses and supermarkets to display kilojoules (energy content) on:
- menus and menu boards
- price tags of standardised ready-to-eat foods and non-alcoholic drinks.