Reading Food Labels

Food labels are found on virtually all packaged foods.  

Reading the label the right way can help you to avoid high sodium, high fat and over-processed foods and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

You can use them to gain valuable information about the nutritional quality of packaged foods.

For example, they can tell you:

  • How rich in calories the food is,
  • Whether the food contains allergenic ingredients (e.g. wheat, soy, nuts),
  • How much salt, fat and sugar is in the food,
  • How much carbohydrate and protein is in the food,
  • Whether there are artificial additives, colours, flavours, preservatives, and
  • Whether the food has been fortified with vitamins and/or minerals.

How To Read Food Labels

In Australia, there are two main parts to the label:

  • The ingredient list, and
  • The nutrition information panel or NIP.

The ingredients list is usually found at the bottom of the nutrition information panel.

Ingredients are listed in order from the largest to the smallest amount based on weight of the ingredient.

The major ingredients in a food product are usually listed in the first three ingredients.

For example, in the list below, the main ingredients are water, wheat flour and butter.

  • Ingredients: Water, wheaten flour, butter, eggs, sugar, salt, preservative 355, flavouring, colours.

The nutrition information panel tells you the following kinds of information:

In the USA, the Nutrition Facts label contains information on:

  • serving size 
  • calories 
  • nutrient information (similar to the Australian ones, but also with vitamins and minerals), plus 
  • a foot note listing daily values for each nutrient listed.

What to look for

Understanding food labels takes a bit of practice.

Here's what to look for on the Nutrition Information/Nutrition Fact Label of a packaged food - amounts shown are per 100g of food:

  • Total fat less than 10g per 100g 
  • For dairy products, aim for less than 2g fat per 100g
  • Saturated fat as low as possible; less than 10% of total fat is a guideline
  • Trans fats less than 1g per 100g
  • Sugars are less than 10g per 100g – divide total sugars by 4 to work out number of teaspoons of sugar in the food.
  • Salt (sodium) is less than 120mg per 100g.

The food is high in fat, sugar or salt if:

  • one of these ingredients is listed in the first three ingredients, or 
  • if the ingredients list contains more than one of these.


Information is presented per serving size (according to manufacturer) and per 100g.

The 100g figure is useful to compare the nutritional content of similar food products.

  • Low fat = less than 3% fat for solid foods, or 1.5% fat for liquid foods (2).
  • Fat free = less than 0.15% of fat.
  • High saturated fat ingredients include animal fat, hydrogenated fat, tallow, butter, palm oil, shortening, ghee, lard, dripping, coconut oil/ cream, copha and full cream milk solids.
  • About 75% of dietary salt comes from processed foods (1). 
  • About 75% of dietary sugar comes from processed foods (1).
  • By choosing “no added salt” varieties, you can eliminate up to 93% of salt compared to the original.
  • Reduced salt = at least 25% reduction in salt compared to the original product.

High sodium (salt) ingredients include:

  • MSG (monosodium glutamate) 
  • sea salt
  • rock salt
  • garlic salt
  • celery salt
  • vegetable salt
  • sodium bicarbonate
  • sodium nitrate
  • stock cubes
  • baking powder 
  • baking soda or fibre.

Ingredients that contain sugar include:

  • brown sugar
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • disaccharides
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • golden syrup
  • honey
  • lactose
  • malt
  • maltose
  • mannitol
  • maple syrup
  • molasses
  • monosaccharides
  • raw sugar
  • sorbitol
  • sucrose
  • xylitol.

Some misleading food labels include a lot of sugar or fat, disguised on the label by using several different names for sugar or fat.

Flavoring, coloring, and preservatives, including anything labelled ‘artificial’, may have health consequences and should be avoided.

Which foods have no nutritional information?

Some foods in Australia don’t have to have a NIP or any sort of food packaging label.

These include:

  • Very small packages and foods like herbs, spices, salt, tea and coffee.
  • Single ingredients like fruit, vegetables, water and vinegar.
  • Food sold at fundraising events.
  • Foods sold unpackaged, as long as there is no nutrition claim made.
  • Foods that are made and packaged at point of sale.

In fact, it could be said that single ingredient foods without labels (like fruit and vegetables) are the healthiest choices because they are unprocessed and have nothing added to them! 

What About Organic Food Labels?

Organic foods are those which have been grown without synthetic chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, additives, herbicides, genetically modified organisms, irradiation and sewage sludge).

The foods and farms on which they are grown undergo rigorous testing during the certification process.

Organic foods in Australia cannot claim superior nutritional quality.

For processed food products, a minimum of 95% weight/weight of all ingredients excluding salt and water must come from certified organic sources.

In other words, up to 5% of ingredients in Certified Organic products, may be non organic.

This may be the case for ingredients where organic ingredients are not available.

Any non-organic ingredients be permitted for use according to the Standard.

The labels of certified organic foods from various countries carry their own specific logos:

  • Australia: Australian Certified Organic logo
  • USA: USDA Organic logo
  • European Union: leaf-shaped EU logo (some old logos from individual countries still exist)
  • Japan: Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) logo
  • Canada: Canada Organic:Biologique Canada

More information

For more information on Australian Food Labels and food label laws, visit:

For more information on Certified Organic Food Labelling in Australia, visit:

For more information on American Food Labelling and laws, visit:

For more information on Certified Organic Food Labelling in America, visit:


(1) Catherine Saxelby, Foodwatch

(2) Better Health Channel