Become fluent in another language: Nutrition labels.

Which one to pick?

Hands up if you’ve ever found yourself standing in the middle of a supermarket aisle, attempting to decode the nutrition label of a food product? Yep, thought so.

Because on the front, the crackers say they’re 100% natural. But does that make them better or worse than the crackers that are 98% fat free?

And there’s sugar in the ingredients list, is that really so bad? What is glucose – is that the bad one? And how much energy is too much energy? And why are all the numbers so SMALL?

Happily, we’re here to help.

This is your cheat-sheet to understanding food labels so that you can make informed choices about what you buy at the shops, without having to resort to Google all the time.

1. Food label rules

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code make the boss-rules about food labels. They are the people who decided that every product label needs to contain:

– Name and description of the food (so: original-flavoured Vitaweats)
– Identification of the lot number (food recall information)
–  Name and Australian street address of the supplier of food (food recall information)
–  List of ingredients
– Date mark (i.e. your “best before”)
– Nutrition information panel (also known at the NIP)
–  Country of origin of the food
– Warning and advisory statements (i.e. your “may contain traces of egg”, etc/)

Most of the above is relatively straightfoward. What leads to the great majority of confusion is the nutrition information panel. And there’s also a bunch of things you should probably know about the ingredients list – so that’s what we’re going to go through this afternoon. Buckle in, kids.

2. The ingredients list

An ingredients list.

The ingredients list, quite obviously, is a list which includes every single item contained within the product.

All the ingredients in the food are listed in order of their weight. So – if sugar is one of the first ingredients listed, you can quite safely assume that the product contains a fair bit of sugar.

Additionally, if a particular ingredient is highlighted on a product, the Code requires that a percentage must be included next to that ingredient – to show the PROPORTION of the ingredient. So, for example, if you purchase yourself some peach juice, the ingredients list will tell you how much peach is actually in that peach juice.

All additives will also be listed on the ingredients list. These might be preservatives, or they might be additives that improve the taste or appearance of a processed food.

You can go here for a complete list of additives in Australia – there are both numerical and alphabetical lists available. It’s good to educate yourself about the different names and numbers that a particular additive might have, especially if you have any intolerances.

Generally, it’s good to go for products where the list of ingredients is relatively short, and where the ingredients are also recognisable.

3. The nutrition information panel

A nutrition information panel.

Most foods will have nutrition information panels on the packaging. Some foods are exempt – herbs/spices, mineral water, tea, coffee, unpackaged foods (e.g. veggies) and foods made and packaged at the point of sale (eg. bakery bread).

The panels have information about the amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium (i.e. salt) in the food, plus any other nutrients that the particular food might claim. So, if your cheese sticks claim that they’re a great source of calcium, then the amount of calcium must also be shown in the panel.


You’ll have to look at:

(A) Serving size

This is determined by the food industry, so it might vary from one product to the next. Note how many servings are in the pack. If you eat 16 biscuits but the serving size is only two – you’ll have to adjust the quantities per serving accordingly.

(B) Energy

Food Standards note that this is “the total amount of kilojoules from protein, fat, carbohydrate, dietary fibre and alcohol that is released when food is used by the body”. So note that energy is not a nutrient in itself, but is released from food components, and it’s measured in kilojoules or calories. Most food labels will note that your average daily intake should be about 8700KJ. However, this will vary between people based on a huge variety of factors.

(C) Sugars

There are maaaaaany different types of sugars and there can be many different terms used to refer to sugar (fructose, glucose, sucrose etc). Educate yourself to recognise them so that you don’t fall for any false claims about a product having “no sugar!”. The NSW Food Authority recommends that adults should get no more than 10-15% of their daily energy intake from sugars.

(D) Salt

Salt’s chemically name is “sodium chloride” which means it is made up of the two minerals. However, it’s the sodium we need to watch out for – hence why it’s listed on the panel.

(E) Fat

There are four – count ’em, FOUR – key types of fat. These are Unsaturated Fats, Saturated Fats, Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fats, and Trans Fatty Acids.

Fat isn’t necessarily bad for you – it all comes down to choosing which type of fat you’re eating. Unsaturated fats are generally recommended – it’s the kind of fat found in avocados, nuts, olive oil and seafood. It’s suggested that you limit your saturated and trans fats.

Keep in mind that a moderate fat intake for healthy adults is approximate 30% of their total daily energy consumption.

4. Comparing products

If you want to compare two similar products, the NSW Food Authority recommends that you check that they have the same serving sizes. If they don’t, use the Quantity per 100g column to compare the two.

The Quantity per 100g indicates how much of what makes up the 100g of the product. SO – if there are 80.4g of carbohydrates – then carbohydrates make up 80.4% of 100g of those Cruskits.

Here is a nifty little table that you can use to see how much of a thing is, well, too much. The Food Authority recommends that you go for foods that land themselves in the green column.

Click here to print out a little wallet guide for comparing products, which includes the above table (who doesn’t love a table, hey?).