Once you become a mum, you find yourself reading food labels on all sorts of foods – much more than you ever have previously. So I thought I’d put some hints together for what to look for, and what some of the lingo actually means!!

Food labels explain a lot about the content of the food contained in the package, and are designed to Food-Labelhelp make food choices. Often people become so confused with the food labels, and become influenced by other sections of the contents packaging which is actually ‘marketing!!’ So it is important to understand what parts of a food label are important, and what it means.

Labels will list additives, ingredients and nutrition information such as fat and protein content. A food label should list the country of origin of the food product, but this statement is not always easy to interpret.

Difference between ‘use-by’ and ‘best before’

Foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a ‘best before’ or ‘use-by’ date.

  • ‘Best before’ date –  refers to the quality of the food – food stored in the recommended way will remain of good quality until that date. It may still be safe to eat certain foods after the ‘best before’ date, but they may have lost quality and some nutritional value.
  • ‘Use-by’ date – refers to foods that should not be consumed after a certain date for health and safety reasons must have a ‘use-by’ date and cannot be sold after that date. You will find ‘use-by’ dates on perishables such as meat, fish and dairy products.

List of ingredients

All ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including added water. So:

  • The ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount.
  • The ingredient listed last is present in the least amount.

If an ingredient makes up less than five per cent of the food, it does not have to be listed. Where there are very small amounts of multi-component ingredients (less than five per cent), it is permitted to list ‘composite’ ingredients only.

The length of the ingredients list and type of words used can be an indicator of how healthy a product is. Foods with long lists of scientific words are highly processed foods.


Nutrition Information panel (NIP)

This is the table on food label that gives you information on the amounts of nutrients in foods such as energy, fat and protein. The amounts are given on a:

  • Per serve basis – this can vary from brand to brand, so this shouldn’t be used when comparing products
  • Per 100g basis – this is ideal for comparing products, as all foods must contain this.

Examples of large amounts of nutrient contents/100g

  • 30 g of sugars
  • 20 g of fat
  • 3 g of fibre
  • 600 mg of sodium.

Examples of small amounts of nutrient contents/100g

  • 2 g of sugars
  • 3 g of fat
  • 0.5 g of fibre
  • 20 mg sodium.


If sugar is listed within the first 3-4 ingredients on the ingredients list, this indicates that the food is likely to contains large amounts of sugar. Other words can be used to describe different forms of sugar these include; sucrose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, maltose, glucose, honey, corn syrup, golden syrup and maple syrup.

No added sugar’ – this doesn’t mean that the food doesn’t contain sugar. It simple means no sugar has been added in making the product. So for something like fruit juice, which contains a large amount of sugar – they can claim ‘No added sugar.’


This is a complicated area, but for information on the different between good fats and bad fats check-out an earlier post ‘Good fats vs Bad fats’ .

In the list of ingredients, fat is very rarely listed as an ingredient! Instead it will usually be listed as; oil, butter, copha, cream, animal fat, margarine, lard, dripping and suet.

Low fat – for a food label to contain this wording it must contain less than 3g of fat per 100g.

Reduced fat – for a food label to contain this wording it must contain less fat than the regular product.

Fat free – for a food label to contain this wording it must contain less than 0.15g per 100g of product

Lite or Light – this doesn’t have any relation to the fat content, this can be in reference to the colour, taste, or texture of the product.


It is recommended that we consumed 25-30g of fibre each day. So when choosing something like a breakfast cereal it is important to choose a cereal that contains the highest content of fibre per 100g. Aim for foods that have more than 6g of fibre per serve, or have the label ‘Very high fibre’.


Choosing a low salt diet is important for the defence against heart disease and high blood pressure.  Salt can be listed in the ingredients as; sodium, sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate, sea salt and chicken salt.

No added salt – simply means no salt has been added through the cooking process

Low salt – means that the food contains less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.

Nutritional Claims

Don’t be misled by the marketing of foods and drinks, designers of labels are very clever and often try to mislead the consumer by using labelling tricks and traps. The terms used are often misleading. For example:

  • The term ‘light’ or ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is low in fat or energy. The term ‘light’ may refer to the texture, colour or taste of the product. The characteristic that makes the food ‘light’ must be stated on the label.
  • The claims ‘no cholesterol’, ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’ on foods derived from plants, like margarine and oil, are meaningless because all plant foods contain virtually no cholesterol. However, some can be high in fat and can contribute to weight gain if used too generously.
  • If an item claims to be 93 per cent fat free, it actually contains 7 per cent fat, but it looks so much better the other way.
  • All natural: Generally indicates no artificial colourings, flavourings or preservatives have been added to the product. It may still be high in fat, sugar and/or salt.
  • ‘Baked not fried’ sounds healthier, but it may still have just as much fat – check the nutrition information panel to be sure.
  • ‘Fresh as’ actually means the product hasn’t been preserved by freezing, canning, high-temperature or chemical treatment. However, it may have been refrigerated and spent time in processing and transport.

Sources: Better Health Chanel, DAA, NEMO

Sally Muir – Dietitian

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