The Language of Food Labels

Reading a nutrition label can be a bit like trying to read a foreign language. Well, here’s the dictionary.

Reading a nutrition label can be a bit like trying to read a foreign language. Well, here’s the dictionary. We’ve demystified a few of the mysteries to help you understand exactly what’s in the foods you eat, which goodies to choose and which nasties to avoid.

New Zealand food labelling and product claims are covered by extensive legislation to safeguard and inform consumers. The content of labels is governed by the Food Standards Code, administered by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Essentially, most packaged food must carry nutritional information, an ingredients list, declaration of allergens, best before or use by date, batch number and recall information.


Here is an example of a nutrition information panel for fruit bread.

  • The nutrition information panel must show the nutrient content for ‘per serving’ and ‘per 100g’ of the food. It’s best to use the ‘per 100g’ column to compare the nutritional value of two similar products or brands.
  • All food labels should state the number of servings in the package and the serving size. The manufacturer decides on the serving size and number of servings contained, which often makes it hard to compare between brands.
  • All foods must include information on the energy content (either in kilocalories or kilojoules) and quantities of protein, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars (all in grams) and sodium (millimols or milligrams) to allow you to make informed choices. Some manufacturers may choose to declare the levels of fibre, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and vitamins and minerals but they are not mandatory.

The lowdown on the nutrients:


In New Zealand, food labels must state energy in kilojoules or both kilojoules and calories.A calorie is a tiny measure of energy, so kilocalories are often used.

  • 1000 calories equals one kilocalorie
  • Kilojoules are a newer energy unit than calories and tend to be more widely used nowadays.
  • They are a smaller unit of energy than kilocalories. In fact, 1 kilocalorie = 4.2 kilojoules.


Protein is required for growth and development, hence why pregnant women, babies and children have increased requirements.


Fats are required to be broken down and declared into ‘total fat’ and ‘saturated fat’. Saturated fats are those commonly regarded as ‘bad’ fats, which are linked to heart disease, high cholesterol and certain cancers. The difference between the quantity of ‘total fat’ and ‘saturated fats’ is the amount of unsaturated fat in a product (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). Remember that not all fats are ‘bad’. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated  (Omega-6 and Omega-3)  fats protect the heart and blood vessels and have many other nutritional benefits. Research has shown they can also assist with many skin conditions such as eczema and can also improve brain function.


Also commonly called carbs, these are an important source of fuel for your body. Sugar, fibre and starch are all types of carbohydrate. Once consumed sugar is  broken down into  glucose and  acts as another fuel source for your body.


Dietary fibre is the nutrient that alleviates constipation, keeps you regular and helps you to feel fuller for longer. Fibre intake is also believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and the incidence of some cancers.


The sodium figure is the salt content of a food. It can be measured in mmol, or mg – when reading a nutrition information panel make note of the unit of measurement.

Nutritional claims

If the packaging contains a claim about a nutrient, for example, ‘good source of folate’, then that nutrient must also be included in the nutrition information. Without getting too technical, there are also rules that apply to nutritional claims. Here are some of the common ones:

Low cholesterol

For a food to be labelled as ‘low cholesterol’, it must have less than 20mg of cholesterol per 100g of food.

Energy reduced

A food labelled as ‘energy reduced’ must contain at least 25% less energy than the same quantity of the standard version of that food.

Low or reduced fat

A ‘low fat’ claim means the food must contain no more than 3g of fat per 100g of food. A food labelled as ‘reduced fat’ must contain at least 25% less fat than the same quantity of the standard version of that food.

Good source of fibre

A food labelled as being a ‘good source of fibre’ must contain at least 4g of dietary fibre per serving. If it’s labelled as ‘an excellent source of fibre’ it must contain at least 7g of dietary fibre per serving. Remember to check the serving size to ensure you’re getting an adequate fibre intake.

Good source of protein

Foods containing at least 10g of protein per serving can claim to be a ‘good source of protein’.

Low salt/sodium

A ‘low salt’ or ‘low sodium’ food is one that has less than 120mg sodium per 100g of food. If it’s labelled as ‘sodium reduced’, it must contain at least 25% less sodium than the same quantity of the standard version of that food. A ‘no added salt’ claim can be used on foods that contain no added sodium or salt, but watch for the natural salt content of some foods such as anchovies, olives, corned beef and bacon.

Low or reduced sugar

A food can claim to be ‘low sugar’ if it contains no more than 5g of sugar per 100g of food. To be labelled as ‘reduced sugar’ it must contain at least 25% less sugar than the same quantity of the standard version of that food.

Light or lite

A food claiming to be ‘light’ or ‘lite’ must have at least 25% less energy, fat and sugar than its standard version. Don’t be confused by ‘light’ olive oil which has a lighter colour in comparison to other oils.


Ingredients are listed from the greatest to the smallest by weight, including added water; essentially, it’s the recipe in descending order of quantities used. Labels must declare the percentage of the key or characterising ingredient of a food (this ingredient is often used in the name). For example, baked beans will show the percentage of beans in the ingredients list and strawberry yoghurt must declare the percentage of strawberries present. This detail makes it easier to compare different brands of the same product.

In general, the longer the ingredient list the more processed the food is and often the more ‘numbers’ (preservatives, additives etc) it contains, so try to opt for less processed, simpler foods when feeding children and during pregnancy.


Allergens must be declared on labels, no matter how small the quantity. Common allergens are peanuts, milk, gluten, fish, soy and eggs. This information is vital for allergy sufferers and people with intolerances, as well as for babies and children with a family history of food allergies.

Food additives

Food additives must be included in the ingredients list and are generally recognised by a number. This is especially useful for people who are sensitive to these ingredients or who wish to avoid additives and preservatives. For a full list of numbers and their corresponding ingredient, check out the Foods Standards website and search ‘food additive lists’.

Other label information

  • The product name and net weight (without packaging) must be declared on the label.
  • The country of origin may be included.  Some manufacturers choose wording like “Manufactured in New Zealand using local and imported ingredients” which is nicely ambiguous!  All food labels must provide the name and contact details of the manufacturer or importer in the case of a product recall.
  • Date codes or batch numbers must be on-pack in case there is a product recall.
  • Foods that need to be eaten before a specific date for food safety reasons, such as dairy and meat products must have a ‘use by’ date.
  • Bread and baked products can be labelled with a ‘Baked on’ or ‘Baked for’ date if the shelf life is less than seven days.
  • Foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a ‘Best before’ date which relates to quality, as after this time the food quality may start to deterioriate.
  • Many foods will have specific storage instructions, like ‘keep refrigerated’ or ‘store in a cool dry place’.  Foods need to be kept within their stated temperature and storage conditions or they will deteriorate and become unsafe before their date code. See keeping food safe.
  • If there’s a possible health risk from a food, such as unpasteurised milk, aspartame (see artificial sugars), phenylalanine or royal jelly, the label must include an advisory statement such as ‘this product contains…’.

What to look for on the shelf

Now that you’ve waded through the marathon of information on labelling, here are some key things to look out for when you’re filling your shopping trolley:

Breakfast cereals
Compare the sugar and sodium content of different cereals using the ‘per 100g’ information as many cereals are exceptionally high in sugar and salt (sodium). Ideally look for good levels of fibre although remember that young children’s stomachs can’t tolerate high levels. Watch for fat levels in toasted muesli as these can creep up.

Many crackers have a surprisingly high fat and salt content, so again use the per 100g column to compare products. See our article on crackers for more on the most nutritious crackers to choose.

Muesli bars and snack bars
Look at the energy, fat, sugar and fibre content. Some bars have very high energy contents that could send your child into orbit! Bars containing nuts and seeds can be high in total fats, but they’re predominantly the ‘good’ monounsaturated and polyunsaturated  fats. Some bars contain as much as 40 – 50g of sugars per 100g which is not good for your childrens health or their teeth.

Compare the fat and sodium content of margarines and other butter substitutes. If you’re replacing butter with a spread in cooking, you’ll need one with around 60% fat. Low fat spreads contain 55% fat or less. The healthier spreads have lower saturated fat but higher unsaturated fat contents. Aim for a spread with very low trans fats as these are as damaging as saturated fats. Note that some spreads have a high sodium content, so remember to compare the ‘per 100g’ quantities of different brands.

If you’re concerned about sugar intake, consider that one teaspoon of sugar weighs approximately 4g. A product claim of ‘no added sugar’ means exactly that, but all sorts of ingredients contain natural sugars such as dried fruit, honey and fruit juices so check the nutrition information panel.
Endorsed by our Nutritionist | Proudly Partnering with Parents Centre

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