Use the labels on food packaging to make healthier choices
- How to compare products
- What to look for under the main nutrients
Nutrition information panels and ingredients lists are a good way of comparing similar foods so you can choose the healthiest one.
Nutrition information panels always list: energy (kilojoules), protein, fat (total), saturated fat, carbohydrate (total), sugars and sodium. Other nutrients like vitamins and minerals, fibre and other types of fat (unsaturated, trans, cholesterol) can also be listed, usually to support any nutritional claims the product is making.
In Australia, the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand sets mandatory standards for what information must be on labels. This includes nutrition information panels, ingredient list and health and nutrition claims.
How to compare products
Look at the food as a whole rather than deciding based on just 1 nutrient alone.
The quantity per 100 g or ml column is best when comparing different brands of similar products. The 'per serving' column allows you to understand the amount of nutrients you might be eating when you serve out that specific portion of the food.
It’s important to keep in mind that the ‘per serving’ value varies depending on the type of food and the brand. It doesn’t necessarily mean you eat the serve size specified on the pack. For example, you might eat more or less than 100 g of the product such as 10 ml of oil or 250 ml of milk.
But what should you look for? Here are some tips for some of the main nutrients.
Energy is listed on the nutrition information panel as kilojoules (kJ). There may also be a number for calories (kcal). Kilojoules are the metric measurement and must be used on food labels in Australia. Calories are the old imperial measurement and can be added to food labels in Australia as long as kilojoules are also listed.
Products labelled ‘light’, ‘lite’, ‘low fat’ or ‘low sugar’ may be lower in fat or sugar than a regular product, but they may not be lower in kilojoules. Consider the kilojoules in the ‘per 100 g or 100 ml’ column when choosing.
Keep in mind the amount you actually eat may be more or less than 100 g or 100 ml (particularly if the package is more or less than 100 g or 100 ml). Use the ‘per serving’ column to give you an idea of how much you might be eating.
While fats are an essential part of your diet, too much unhealthy saturated fat and trans fat can increase your risk of heart disease. Limit saturated fat and trans fat should be avoided .
Look for 'saturated fat' on the nutrition information panel. Use the per 100 g or 100 ml column to compare similar products to choose the option with less saturated fat.
Trans fat is often not listed on the nutrition information panel. Avoid foods with ‘partially hydrogenated’ vegetable oil or vegetable fat listed in the ingredients list. Avoiding foods like bakery goods (sausage rolls, meat pies, cakes, biscuits) also helps to limit your trans fat intake.
Carbohydrates and sugars
All fruit and vegetables, breads and grain (cereal) foods contain carbohydrates of varying levels and types, as do foods with added sugar.
The ‘total sugars’ value on the nutrition information panel is the combination of naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk products) and added sugar in the food. Naturally occurring sugars are an integral part of whole fruits, vegetables, or milk products. Added sugar means sugar that is added to foods and drinks in processing or preparation.
There are many names for added sugars, so look in the ingredients list for words like: sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, raw sugar, cane sugar, malt extract and molasses.
When comparing similar foods, choose those with lower levels of added sugar by reading the ingredients list.
Salt is listed in the nutrition information panel as sodium. Most of the salt we consume comes from the processed foods we buy. So this is a really important nutrient to check on food labels.
Use the per 100g column to identify food products with less sodium. Read about recommended salt intake and how to reduce it
Look for foods labelled 'no added salt' or 'salt reduced' as these will be lower in sodium compared to similar foods.
Health Star Rating System
The Health Star Rating system rates the overall nutritional profile of a food, from half a star to 5 stars. It gives you a simple way to compare similar packaged foods and make an informed choice.
The Health Star Rating System is a voluntary self-regulated front-of-pack labelling scheme developed by the Australian, state and territory governments, working with industry, public health and consumer groups.