Oh look. Shiny! Pretty! Colourful! Standing in the supermarket you can sometimes feel like you have walked into Aladdin's cave with all the bright, loud food packages staring back at you.
The next sentence might shock you, but food packing is one of the most useful items in your health and wellness toolbox. Bear with us. Of course everyone can feel overwhelmed by 'lite' this or 'good source of' that, but once you start to understand what goes onto a label you start to see these cardboard (or plastic) coverings as what they are, a goldmine of information.
To keep it simple we've pulled together the following explanations of the different elements of a label, starting with what we think is one of the most important pieces, the nutrition information panel. There are some elements on a food label that are required (mandatory) by law and other elements which a company may choose (voluntary) to include. Whether it is mandatory or voluntary, the information on the packet must be true and accurate (not misleading) with information or evidence to back it up.
Almost all food will come with a nutrition information panel. The exceptions are:
- fresh fruit and veg (not anything not packaged) or packaged when it's sold, like putting bread into a bag in a bakery
- small pack size
- the food doesn't really have any nutritional value (think herbs, spices, coffee, tea etc)
You will usually find the ingredient list on the back of the product. Ingredients must be listed in descending order (by ingoing weight). This means that when the food was manufactured the first ingredient listed contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient listed contributed the least, compared to the other ingredients. So, if fat, sugar or salt are listed near the start of the list the product contains a greater proportion of these ingredients.
Within an ingredient list you may have noticed percentages in brackets next to some items. The percentages reflect what proportion of that product is made of that ingredient. This needs to be listed for 'characterising' ingredients. For example, in strawberry yoghurt, strawberry would be considered a characterising ingredient. So, if you had two strawberry yoghurts you could compare the two based on how much strawberry they had in them because both packages would need to list it as a percentage. Characterising ingredients are also needed by law or definition of the food. For example, chocolate isn't chocolate unless it has cocoa solids in it. So manufacturers need to label how much is in the product. Some foods, such as 'white bread' or 'cheese', have no characterising ingredients.
Health star ratings are a relatively new labelling feature in Australia and New Zealand. Currently the government supported scheme is voluntary and is in it's initial two year period.
It is an interpretive front of pack labeling system aimed to simplify complex nutrition information into a simple, visual format. Foods get a score between 1 star and 5 stars with 5 stars being the 'healthier' option. The stars are not category based, so some products, will have a lower number of stars purely based on their natural composition.
Although not perfect, the scoring of the food is based on total energy, fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, protein, fibre, vegetable or fruit content and nut content. More information can be found here.
The rules around nutrition and health claims were updated for both Australia and New Zealand in January 2013. These rules cover the voluntary statements companies might make about the nutrient content of a food, or how a particular aspect of that food may assist in good health. Claims can range from 'contains 10g of protein per serve', 'a good source of fibre' to 'calcium is good for your bones' or even 'Phytosterols may reduce blood cholesterol'.
Claims are generally broken down into the following three categories. These definitions have been sourced from Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
Nutrient content claims: are claims about the content of certain nutrients or substances in a food, such as 'low in fat' or 'good source of calcium'. These claims will need to meet certain criteria set out in the Standard.
General level health claims: refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its effect on a health function. They must not refer to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease.
High level health claims: refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its relationship to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease.
Foods must be labelled with an accurate name or description, for example fruit yoghurt must contain fruit. If it were to contain fruit flavouring rather than real fruit, the label would need to say 'fruit flavoured yoghurt'.
If a food lasts less than two years, then it must have a 'best before' or 'use by date'. Foods which may still be safe to eat, but might have lost some quality or nutritional value will have a best before date. Those foods which will go off and cannot be safely consumed after a certain date will have a 'use by' date. Like with most rules, there is always an exception! In this case if a food, like bread, has a shelf life of less than seven days, it can be labelled with a 'baked on' or 'baked for' date.
If a product needs to stored in certain conditions to ensure it keeps, then this information needs to be given to the consumer, you guessed it, on the label. This is also true if the product needs to be prepared in a certain way. That's why you will often see statements like 'keep refrigerated at or below 4°C' or 'store in a cool, dry place.' This is also why you might have noticed cooking instructions on some products, like rice, pasta or cake mixes.
Some foods or ingredients can cause serious reactions in people who are allergic to them. Food allergies are when your body's own immune system reacts to different proteins in the food we eat. Symptoms can include swelling, hives, vomiting or wheezing. The majority of allergies occur in children and are generally outgrown. The most typical allergies are to peanut, tree nuts, seafood, sesame, soy, fish or wheat. Allergies are different to intolerances, which, whilst still uncomfortable, do not produce an immune response.
Because certain foods or ingredients can cause life threatening responses in some people, they need to be clearly labelled. This generally comes in the form of a warning 'May contain traces of ......' or 'Contains ......'
Gluten is also required to be labelled in the same way as other allergens, although this is more for those with coeliac disease.
Food additives have many different purposes, including making processed food easier to use or ensuring food is preserved safely. They may come from a synthetic or a natural source. For example, emulsifiers prevent salad dressings from separating into layers and preservatives help to keep food safe or fresh longer. All food additives must have a specific use, must have been assessed and approved by FSANZ for safety and must be used in the lowest possible quantity that will achieve their purpose.
For more information on food allergies see the Anaphylaxis Australia website www.allergyfacts.org.au or Allergy New Zealand www.allergy.org.nz
Just in case there is the unfortunate need to recall the food, customers need to know who to call and where to send it. This is also useful if a customer wants to report a poor quality or faulty product. Like everything on a package, this information needs to be legible (readable). There are actually specific size requirements for most packaging to make sure the majority of the population can read it.
Surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand have different country of origin labeling requirements. In Australia, packaged foods must state either where the food was grown, produced or made or where the food was manufactured if it is a mix of ingredients from different sources. It should then state 'made from local and imported ingredients. For unpackaged foods - think fruit or vegetables - the country of origin is still required, but it can displayed near the price or name, or even provided by staff.
This is different to New Zealand where country of origin is voluntary (except for wine). If consumers would like to know, they are able to contact the manufacturer or importer.
Foods need to have labelled either their weight in grams or kilograms or if it's a liquid, in milliliters or liters.