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Getting to Know the Labels on Packaged Foods

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What's in a label? With new legislation coming into effect in Australia after 20 December 2002, compulsory food labelling for packaged foods will offer a whole new level of information for Australian consumers.

However, you won't be alone if you think that deciphering labels is sometimes difficult. With hundreds of additives listed by number, it's unlikely that you'll ever get to know each and every one of them. What you can do is get to know the labels a little better and start to understand exactly what the additives are doing in your food.

What the labels actually say

Let's take a look at a standard label. In this instance, it's on a jar of Kraft Original Style Mayonnaise.

Nutrition label on Kraft Original Style Mayonnaise The nutritional information is listed so that you can see data for both a standard serving size and for a 100 g serve. The 100 g column is particularly helpful as you can easily use this column to work out the percentages of certain nutrients in foods. For example, the mayonnaise has a total of 21.6 grams of fat per 100 g, which means that it has over 20 per cent fat, which is a high level.

The label will tell you the total kilojoules/calories and the amount of protein the food contains. The fats listed are the total amount of fat – including saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and trans fats – as well as the amount of saturated fat alone. The list should also include cholesterol, carbohydrates (total and sugars) and sodium.

Now let's move on to the ingredients listing. Ingredients are listed according to weight, from highest to lowest. After December 20, manufacturers will be required to include percentages of the characterising ingredients of a food. So, the packaging of a strawberry yoghurt will be required to display the percentage of strawberries the yoghurt contains. The mayonnaise doesn't have a characterising food ingredient, so it is exempt from this rule.

Nutrition labels must also highlight ingredients that may be of some health risk to people who suffer from intolerances. The most common food intolerances are peanuts, wheat or milk.

Food additives

Further down the list of ingredients, you will notice some ingredients that are accompanied by numbers in brackets. These numbers stand for different types of food additives and conform to an international food additive identification system.

There are many different types of food additives that perform different functions in our food. In fact, in Australia, food additives must perform a specific function that a natural ingredient cannot do, such as enhancing the colour of a food or acting as a preservative.

Food additives are put through extensive testing before they are deemed safe for the Australian market. Many substances used as food additives already occur naturally in some foods, such as Vitamin C or lecithin. Our bodies do not know the difference between a chemical that is naturally present in food and the same chemical that has been added to our food. This is why many cereals, breads, margarines and other products can be fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Food additive categories

So what are food additives and what do they do? Here's a brief run down on some of the most common additives used in Australia:

Acidity regulators

Help to maintain the acid levels of foods to prevent foods from going off. May also be used to change the flavour. Acidity regulators are not known to have any connection with increased stomach acid or reflux.

Anti-caking agents

Make sure that particles of the food don't stick together.


Stop foods oxidising, or going off. This is particularly important for fats and oils that may become rancid when exposed to the air.

Bulking agents

Increase the size of the food without increasing the kilojoule/calorie content.


Improve the colour of food.


Prevent oil and water from separating into layers.

Flavour enhancers

Enhance the flavour or taste of foods.


Reduce moisture loss in foods.


Prevent foods from going off, increase the shelf-life of foods.

Raising agents

Increase the volume of foods, particularly baked goods like breads and cakes.


Substances that replace sugars and reduce the number of kilojoules/calories contained in a food.


Improve the thickness and consistency of foods.

The official shoppers guide to food additives and labels Food additives are generally used in processed foods in very small quantities. If you need more information about food additives, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand have put out a great little book, called The official shoppers guide to food additives and labels, that is designed to help consumers understand food additives and labels better. It contains a complete breakdown of each of the food additives in current use in Australia. You can purchase the book in newsagents and supermarkets for $4.95.



Genetically modified and irradiated foods

In Australia, the law states that all foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients must say so on the label or, if the food is not packaged, near the food's point of purchase.

GM foods are modified using gene technology in an attempt to improve the quality or productivity rates of foods. For example, a corn plant may be modified to include a gene that makes it resistant to certain insects. Cotton is the only GM crop that is produced in Australia. Some foods may include imported GM ingredients, such as cotton, corn, canola, soy beans, sugar beets and potatoes.

Some GM foods are exempt from labelling, such as those ingredients used in foods in restaurants, hotels or take-away food outlets.

Food irradiation is a food processing technique where foods are exposed to a source of ionising energy. The process is designed to kill bacteria which, in turn, preserves the food.

Contrary to popular belief, food irradiation does not make food radioactive. Once the ionising process is completed, the energy does not stay in the food. Any chemical changes to the composition of the food are minimal.

Like GM foods, food irradiation must be shown on the label of packaged foods. At present in Australia and New Zealand, only herbs, spices and herbal infusions have been approved for irradiation. The process is used in about 40 other countries around the world.

Health claims on food packaging

Many food products on the market declare that they are 97 per cent fat free, low-fat, healthy or somehow good for you. Under the current law, product labels are allowed to declare that the food is good for you but not that it can prevent certain conditions. For example, a milk carton can say that milk is a good source of calcium but not that it prevents osteoporosis.

Reducing fat in the diet is definitely something to aim for, so when comparing products it is a good idea to choose the low-fat alternative if one is available. However, some products may be reduced-fat but still higher in fat than other foods. For example, some types of reduced-fat ice cream may still have a relatively high fat content compared to other choices of dessert, or biscuits that are advertised as low in fat may have a lot more fat than another healthy snack choice, such as fresh fruit, a low-fat yoghurt or rice crackers. Look for the lowest fat content where possible.

For more information about food labelling, visit Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

The information in this article has been sourced from Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Last updated: December 16th, 2002

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