Understanding food labels in Australia

Women reading ingredients label

Research shows that the health claims we see on product labels affect our buying behaviour, so many food manufacturers come up with creative ways to label something and make a product look healthier.  But are they really?

To identify if the product is as healthy as it claims, look past the front label and go straight to the nutritional information panel (NIP) usually on the back of the product.  Understanding the NIP helps you decide whether to purchase and avoid possible allergens labeled as something else. Here are some of the misleading labels you need to watch out for.

Rule of Thumb:

Take note that the first three ingredients you see on the list of a product is what the product is mostly made up of.  

Mislabeled Ingredients

  • Refined grains – these are types of refined and processed sugar or grains that have been stripped of any nutrients.  Some examples of these are sucrose, high fructose, corn syrup, and agave syrup.
  • Sugar – sugar can be labeled as more than 50 different names.  The most common terms we see are fructose, galactose, maltose, corn syrup, lactose, glucose, malt syrup, barley malt and more.  Plus take note that some fruits used as ingredients are naturally high in sugar already.
  • Salt – similar with sugar, salt can be labeled with different terms such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium phosphate or even as baking soda and baking powder.
  • Light or Lite – these are products that have been processed to reduce fat or calories but this doesn’t mean that the sugar content has been totally removed and often other preservatives are added.
  • Natural – this simply indicates that the product used an ingredient that was derived from a natural resource NOT that it is a completely natural product.
  • Organic – we often assume that organic is always healthy but it’s not always the case.  A product may be organic but could still have high sugar or calorie content.  
  • Sugar Free or No Added Sugar – some ingredients are already high in sugar to begin with so this label doesn’t mean that the product is free from sugar.
  • Fortified or Enriched – this means that the product has some sort of vitamins added in it.  But, it doesn’t always conclude that the product is healthier.
  • Low Fat, Fat-Free, 0% Trans Fat – if the fat was reduced, chances are it’s been substituted with some type of sugar.  This also means that the product has 0.5 grams of fat per serving not per package. 
  • Low Carb – these are considered processed food. 
  • Fruit-flavoured – Simply put, these are chemicals added to a product disguised to make a product taste like real fruit.
  • Multigrain – unless the product says whole grain, this is often another type of refined grain or processed sugar.
  • Whole Grain – whole grain is acceptable is it part of the first three ingredients of the product.  Otherwise, it’s clearly mislabeled.
  • Gluten-free – many gluten-free products are highly processed and are unhealthy.  Gluten-free simply means that a product does not have any form of grains such as barley, wheat, rye and spelt in it.  You can find Love Your Health gluten-free products here.

Food products require an allergen listing included on its packaging. Check for disclaimers that say “may contain milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soy, fish, crustacean shellfish” or other similar phrases.  These claims suggest the product may have come into contact with these types of foods, which could still trigger an allergy.

Serving Sizes

Serving sizes are key to understanding labels and ingredients. The amount we see on the labels are based on serving sizes and not for the entire package.  They are usually smaller than what an average person may consume in a day.  Chances are you are consuming more than one serving size.  So to know how many calories, fat, or sugar you have consumed, simply multiply the serving with the indicated amounts on the label.

Despite these misleading labels, there are still many products that are true to their claims and are proven healthy.  Just read, check and be a wise consumer.