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Food labels - what do they mean?

food; labels; nutrition; information; allergy; additives;


What are food labels?

It is the law in Australia that all packaged foods have food labels. These labels give information such as:

  • name of the food
  • name and address of the company who made the food
  • which country the food came from
  • all the ingredients in the food
  • what percentage of some ingredients is in the food
  • allergy warnings if there is something in the food that may cause an allergic reaction for someone
  • nutrition information panel
    example of a food label

Date Marking

The 'use by' date on fresh food tells when it might no longer be safe to eat that food.

The 'best before' date on canned or packet foods tells you that the food won't be at its best after that date.

Nutrition Information

The Nutrition Information panel tells what amounts of energy, protein, fats (saturated and total fats), carbohydrates (including sugar), and sodium (salt) are in the food.

The serving size tells you how much is in a serve of that food. Of course, if you have more than one serve then you will have had more than the regular serve of everything in it.

Percentage information

The percentage information on some packaging tells what percentage of some ingredients there are in the food.

  • For example the percentage of fat in milk is often shown on the carton. Normal milk (full cream milk) has 4% fat, low fat milk has 1% fat (sometimes written as 99% fat-free), and skim milk has 0.1% fat (99.9% fat-free).
  • All ingredients must be listed by order of weight. The largest amount is listed first, down to the smallest amount listed last.

If you have an allergy

allergyMany people have allergies to foods, especially kids and young people.

  • Doctors, scientists and nutritionists know which ingredients or additives can make some people sick
  • There has to be information on the label if there is even the smallest amount of foods like peanuts, seafood, fish, milk, tree nuts, eggs and soybeans in the product, as they are the most common allergens.

Food additives and why they are used

Food additives can come from plants or other natural things, or they can be chemicals that have been specially made.

Different food additives can do different jobs.

  • Some help food stay fresher for longer; they are called preservatives.
  • Some are flavour enhancers, which means that they make the food taste better.
  • Colours make the food look more attractive.
  • Antioxidants are used to stop fat and oil in foods from going off quickly.
  • Thickeners can alter the thickness and feel of the food.
  • Humectants (say hume-ek-tants) are used in bakery products to keep bread and cakes from becoming dry and stale too quickly.

In our part of the world, all food additives must be listed on the label and be assessed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

All additives have to be listed by their name and chemical name, or by number.

People who know they are allergic to something should find out what name and number to look out for and avoid.

GM foods

potatoesGenetically modified (GM) foods are foods that have been altered in some way by adding genes from another food or animal.

nuts and seedsVery few GM foods are allowed to be grown or sold in Australia. Those that are allowed to have altered genes include: soy, sugarbeet, corn, cottonseed, canola and potatoes.

Most scientific evidence says that there will be no harm to people who eat GM food.

The label will show if there are any genetically modified ingredients in the product.

Things to watch out for

fats, sugar and saltIt can still be difficult to find out exactly what  is in a product. Sometimes the labels have different names for the same ingredients, eg:

  • sodium (as in sodium chloride) and salt are the same.
  • the quantity of fat shown on a product's label may be from animal oil, animal fat, vegetable oil, butter fat, palm oil, shortening, kremelta, copha, tallow, lard...  But not all fats are the same, and some are better for you than others.

What kids say

  • "I am allergic to peanuts. I get really sick so everyone in my class knows not to bring peanuts to school in case I get near any".
  • "I can't have cow's milk so I have soy-milk".
  • "I can't have gluten because it makes me sick. It's a bit sad sometimes when everyone is eating cakes at a party and I can't have any, but other people are worse off".
  • "If I have seafood I swell up and can't breathe well, so I have to be careful".
  • "I can't eat eggs and that means that I have to watch out for anything that has eggs in it".

Dr Kate says

Dr KateThere are many more kids getting allergies these days. It is not known why this is happening, but it is important for every child to have a well balanced diet including fruit and vegetables.

Be careful to wash fruit and vegetable skins carefully first before you eat, because sometimes they have been sprayed with chemicals when they were growing to protect them from insects. We don't need to eat more chemicals! After they have been gathered, some fruits are sprayed with other chemicals so that they will look better and last longer. These chemicals are believed to be safe. 

If you want to know more check out this site: - click on 'Consumer' and then 'Labelling'.

always wash the skin of fruit and vegetables before eating

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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