Interpreting Food Labels

Food labels are something that can be very confusing for people simply because the primary goal of food manufacturers is to sell their products. Accordingly, marketers of food products will do everything they can in order to make their products appear better than they really are.

However, in 1996 an agreement between Australia and New Zealand was established for nutrition food labels that created a uniform system of food standards between the two countries. It is called the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. These stringent guidelines are effective at ensuring that the foods we purchase as consumers are safe, they allow consumers to make informed food choices and they ensure foods don't contain any ingredients that aren't featured on the label.

Despite the usefulness of the Food Standards Code, and the strictness of these two governments when it comes to their food supplies, there are still a number a ways that food manufacturers can be misleading or even deceptive in their food labels. This can make interpreting and understanding food labels very difficult.

Interpreting Food Labels

These food labeling tactics used by food manufacturers extend far beyond the shores of Australia and New Zealand and are also prevalent in many other countries around the world. Therefore, this article on interpreting food labels is beneficial for people everywhere.

Here are some food label
marketing tactics to be aware of:

Percentage of fat

The percentage of fat contained in a food product is generally determined by weight. For example, a 100-gram piece of steak may only contain 7 grams of fat and therefore be considered to be 7% fat.

However, if the percentage of fat is determined by energy content (calories/ kilojoules), then the percentage of fat will be vastly different. Using our steak example we discover that the 100 gram piece of topside steak contain 191 calories or 802 kilojoules. Since we know that 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories (37 kilojoules) and our piece of steak contain 7 grams of fat, then we know that of the 191 calories or 802 kilojoules, 63 calories or 259 kilojoules come from fat. This makes the percentage of fat by energy content around 32%!

Furthermore, promoters of milk products say that full-cream milk is okay for us to consume because it is only 4% fat!

Trouble is, this is 4% fat by weight! This means it has 4 grams of fat per 100mls (or grams). Unfortunately, most people would have a 250ml or 300ml glass of milk if they drink it which means they would consume 10-12 grams of fat in one glass!

As you can see, not only is interpreting food labels important but even more so is understanding what they mean!

Reduced fat/ Low fat/ Less fat

According to the Food Standards Code, any food with these statements must not contain more than 75% of the total fat content of the same quantity of the reference food. Alternatively, there must be a reduction of at least 3 grams of fat per 100g of the food compared to the reference food.

The downfall of this is that it is easy for food manufacturers to simply replace the fat with sugar in order to maintain the taste and palatability of the food. Therefore, someone who is making an effort to eat less fat and less overall calories (kilojoules) and who chooses low-fat alternatives, could be actually be consuming more sugar and possibly more calories (kilojoules)!

Light/ Lite

In the past it was possible for food manufacturers to use the words, 'light' or 'lite' on the labels of their products to give consumers the impression that this product was lower in fat or calories (kilojoules) than the standard food. In fact, the food may have only been lighter in colour and everything else was exactly the same!

The Food Standards Code has now stopped this deceptive form of promotion by requiring that if 'light' or 'lite' are stated on food nutrition labels then the characteristic that makes the food 'light' must be stated, i.e. colour or taste.

No added sugar

This statement simply means that no sugar has been added to the food. Unfortunately though, the food itself may be loaded with natural sugars, like dried or tinned fruit, and therefore can wreak havoc with blood sugar levels even if eaten in small quantities.


This vague term is seen everywhere on so many different food labels. It gives the impression that the food is healthy, when in actual fact the opposite may be true. It is better to simply ignore this term and make a judgement based on the ingredients contained within the product.

Ingredient listings

The ingredient listings, usually at the bottom of food panels, give consumers the best information about what foods to select. Ingredients on the label are placed in order of weight they contribute to the food, with the highest ingredient being listed first.

Consumers should be wary of foods containing the following ingredients: sugar (especially if it is listed early in the ingredients list), hydrogenated/ fractionated or partially hydrogenated oils (because they are harmful to the body) and artificial colourings, flavourings or preservatives because they are unnatural chemicals added to foods and it is worthwhile using an additive code-breaker book like, ADDITIVE ALERT : Your Guide to Safer Shopping, to find out more about them before consuming the product.

Overall, The Food Standards Code does a good job at controlling the claims and statements on food labels. However, it is worthwhile being aware of some areas where food manufacturers may still be able to mislead consumers. By being aware of these areas and interpreting food labels correctly it becomes much easier to make wiser food choices for yourself and your family.

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