Let’s not beat around the bush – everything on food packaging, from the colour scheme and logo, to the exact words used – is deliberately chosen to catch your attention and convince you to place it in your shopping trolley. So how do you separate the useful information from the marketing jargon?

It’s easy to misinterpret these claims when companies skirt the edge of allowable advertising, so this guide outlines what to look out for, and what the common terms actually mean.

What’s on our packaging?

From Ingredients to additives, energy and nutrition, here’s a round-up of Australian packaging and what to look out for.

An introduction to ingredients and nutritional values

Perhaps the most important section of a food packaging for the health conscious consumer, the ingredients and nutritional value is often far from prominent. Thankfully we live in a country where ingredients and nutritional labels are mandatory, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to interpret while standing at the super market shelves.

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What’s on the label and what does it mean?

Let’s deal with the first part – what do we see on a label? In Australia, our labelling laws are governed and overseen by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ for short). They are an independent government body that regulates the labelling requirements for all packaged food. FSANZ require food companies to display the following information, provided it is relevant to the product being sold.

• Ingredients list
• Percentage labelling
• Nutritional claims
• Country of origin labelling
• Fish labelling
• Food allergies and intolerances
• Health and related claims
Truth in labelling
• Warning and advisory statements

The Exception: Deli, bakery and café products are exempt from these laws as the foods are usually served without packaging.

Manufacturers of packaged foods are required to display:

• A ‘use by’ or best before’ date
• Their company details (including an address)
• The overall weight of the product

Interested? You can find more information here.

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Ingredients list

The image above could look quite intimidating, but it’s actually the ingredients list for something we’re all familiar with – the humble banana!

Here are few things to bear in mind when you read an ingredients list:

  • The ingredients are ordered by which weighs the most, to which weighs the least. In our banana above, this means 75% of the weight of a banana is water.
  • If there’s a particular product you find undesirable (for example, added sugar in a savoury product), you would wish to see this ingredient either towards the end of the list or not at all.
  • Water does not have to be on the list if:

–  It is added by the consumer during the cooking process,

– It forms part of a broth or brine that is otherwise listed among the ingredients

– The total water content is less than 5% of the overall product.

Having the ingredients listed in order of most to least weight could give you an idea of the nutritional content of the product.

Compound ingredients

Compound ingredients are made up of at least two simpler ingredients. In ‘pre-packaged pasta in a tomato sauce’, the pasta component may be presented as follows: Pasta (flour, water, egg) 40%. If a compound ingredient makes up less than 5% of the overall ingredients, the individual components won’t need to be listed. An example would be a tomato sauce that makes up 3% of an overall dish, consisting of tomatoes, onions, oregano and sugar, being present in a frozen cannelloni package: The label need only state “tomato sauce”. However, if part of a compound is a known allergen, such as nuts, seafood or soy, for example, this must be clearly stated on the packaging.

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Showing percentages for key ingredients

Packaged foods often show an ingredients list that includes some percentages, but not for every ingredient. Labelling laws will often require that the percentages are shown only for key ingredients, or ingredients that are advertised on the front of the package. This helps us to compare products and make judgments about the value of the product.

For example, you may be holding two similar-looking chicken pie products – one with 60% chicken, and the other with 30% chicken. With a quick glance, you can see that the first product contains more chicken, presumably a key ingredient in a chicken pie. You may prefer the second product for a number of reasons, but packaging law has ensured you have the information needed to make a reasoned choice.

Additives and number codes

Sometimes an unusual-sounding ingredient may appear on a label alongside a number in brackets. For example: preservative (220) refers to sulphur dioxide, a common preservative found in many products from wine to dried fruit, which helps to maintain the longevity of the product. The mysterious number can also refer to a colouring or flavouring agent. Sometimes these are artificially produced, and sometimes they are naturally occurring and derived from other products.

While the additives in our packaged food are considered safe, many people are concerned about a cumulative effect of consuming additives. While there is no solid science to warn people off specific additives, the general dietary guidelines stress that fresh is still best.

Energy by weight and by serve

The columns you see on package labels that offer the nutritional content in grams will do so by weight and by serve. If you’re tracking your energy intake throughout the day, this packaging information can be very useful. RDIs (recommended daily intakes according to the dietary peak bodies) are often displayed too, though these will not be tailored to you specific needs.

If you are calorie tracking, just remember to go by weight rather than portion size, because the latter can vary dramatically. Although Australian products often display kilojoules, many of these calculation tools and popular diets (such as the 5:2 fast) use the calorie as the measurement, so this conversion rule will help:

To convert from kilojoules > calories, divide by 4.2. For calories > kilojoules, multiply by 4.2.

A stock image of an employee putting price tags on shelves at a product isle in a new Woolworths supermarket in Everton Park in Brisbane's northern suburbs

Common marketing claims explained

Words like natural, nature, pure, wholegrain, organic, free range, fresh and healthy don’t always mean what you’d expect them to. Therefore it’s important to know when producers and food manufacturers can use these terms, and what the rules are.

Being able to navigate your way around the murky world of food advertising buzz words can help you make better choices, and once you know which wording to look out for it’s easier to hone in and ultimately save time in the aisles. Here is a list of the most common marketing words and when they can be used by manufacturers.

Lite and Light

The word ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean the product is lower in fat or sugar. A company can use the word ‘lite’ or ‘light’ to mean it has a reduced colour, a muted taste or even a softer texture, as explained further in this article.

Natural

This is one of the trickier marketing claims because there is little consensus on what constitutes “natural”. As a result, according to this paper, there are overlapping and ill-defined guidelines and as a result, food manufacturers get away with using the word with impunity, except for clear cases of misleading conduct.

Although the word may make a product seem more attractive, it would seem there is little basis to consider it either healthier or more desirable than comparable products.

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Low fat

According to the Dietitian’s Association of Australia, a product using the claim “low fat” to market a product must contain no more than 3% fat for solid food, or 1.5% fat for a liquid. If you’re looking in the column marked per 100 grams, this will display at 3 grams for solids and 1.5 grams for liquids. It’s important to note that the overall fat content is not indicative of the overall nutritional value of that food, and certainly doesn’t indicate the total energy.

Wholegrains

According to the FSANZ, the term wholegrain is considered to mean:

“the intact grain or the dehulled, ground, milled, cracked or flaked grain where the constituents endosperm, germ and bran – are present in such proportions that represent the typical ratio of those fractions occurring in the whole cereal, and includes wholemeal”.

Put simply, the wholegrains end up in your food fairly intact, along with the nutitional benefits that you might not get in processed grains. Additional fibre is a good example of this.

Health Fact: Wholegrains are a big selling point considering they’re associated with improved health outcomes such as lower rates of diabetes, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease, as well as improved bowel health.

High fibre

A product may advertise itself as “high fibre” provided it has at least 3 grams of fibre per serve. The issue here is that serving sizes vary, so working out what your fibre intake can be tricky. The average adult should be aiming for 30 grams of fibre every day in order to optimise bowel health and reduce the risk of developing the sorts of conditions outlined above. A piece of wholegrain bread might contain 2-5 grams of fibre, meaning you might consume up to 30% of your daily needs with your morning toast. To top this up, you can add fresh vegetables, fruit (try to keep the skins on where possible and palatable) and legumes.

Superfood

The word ‘superfood’ is a relatively new one, and it’s not without its controversy. In terms of labelling, since it has no definition, anyone can label a food a “superfood”. The term is not a protected one, it’s a case of using your own judgement to evaluate the claims on the packet.

Related:Superfoods debunked

Reduced salt

Shown as “sodium” on the product label, this refers to the sodium component of salt. Sodium is an important electrolyte that the body uses to function normally, but we can have too much. This makes reduced salt foods a desirable option, and products that have 120mg or less of sodium per 100 grams of food can be labelled as “reduced salt”.

The new food health star rating – A win for consumers and packaging?

After a protracted negotiation between government, industry and health advocacy groups, the health minister signed off on the Health Star rating label after the fine details were negotiated and nutted out- So how does it work?

The Health Star Rating is a voluntary labelling system that appears on the front of packaging, rating the nutritional profile from ½ a star through to 5 stars. Just like a hotel rating, the more starts a product has the better the option – at least that’s the intension. With a quick glance, you have the fat, sugar, sodium and total energy content per 100 grams, which makes it easier to compare products. The label also displays any other significant nutrients. Our example above displays calcium content, but you may see dietary fibre or similar.

The good parts

There are some good and not-so-good parts to the Health Star Rating system – here are the main points for each side.

  • The consumer can quickly compare two different products, either by looking at the number of stars or by comparing specific nutrients.
  • It incentivises companies who make healthier products to proudly display their 4 or 5-star products proudly.

Related:Cereal and the Health Star Rating system

The not-so-good parts

  • Because of this, there is a disincentive for manufacturers of products high in sugars, fats or sodium to clearly state this
  • Not all fats and sugars are equal. An avocado, for example, is extremely high in fat, but the nutritional content is good for us on balance, however, The Star Rating System does not account for this.
  • As everything is per 100g, some products can look very unhealthy, but we may commonly only use a very small amount, such as when spreading mayonnaise on a sandwich.

Their standards and your standards

Food means different things to different people. Labels might not be a consideration for you, but the information they provide can still be useful and inform your choices. Looking for wholegrains, reduced salt, specific allergens or low calories can be so much easier if the information is presented in a uniform way. The ability to compare products is a huge plus for consumers – it allows us more information to make an informed choice.

Perhaps next time you visit the supermarket, you’ll see all these labelling elements with a clearer perspective, knowing what labelling laws mean and what this enables food companies to put on their packaging.