What Do Food Labels Really Mean?
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
Many of us have caught ourselves reading the entire label on our morning cereal box, milk carton or juice container over breakfast while we still attempt to wake-up. Food manufacturers don't just put this information there for the slow-to-rise breakfast-munchers; it is actually required by law in many countries that food products meet certain labelling requirements. In Australia, these are set-out by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
Let's look at some basics of labelling in Australia.
1. The nutrition panel
The nutrition panel is one of the main points of reference for health conscious consumers. This panel contains information about the total calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates and sodium in any given food item. Some manufacturers may choose to include additional information, perhaps about the amount of calcium, magnesium or Vitamin C, for example. This nutrition panel is important for social sustainability to ensure we can continue living healthy lifestyles by keeping our food consumption in check.
2. The ingredient list
Did you know that ingredient lists on food labels are required by law to be listed in descending order by ingoing weight? For example, if you see a product with sugar listed as the first ingredient, that means that the ingredient which made up largest portion of weight of all the ingredients is actually sugar! It would be a good idea to stay away from this product or only treat yourself to it occasionally. In the ingredient list, it is also necessary to list any additives. There is also a requirement to put the percentage of any ingredients which are deemed to characterise the product. For example, on the back of an orange juice container, it is a legal requirement that the manufacturer state what percentage of the product is actually made up of oranges.
3. The food identification
This one is pretty straight forward: what is the actually product. If it is orange juice, it needs to say that it is orange juice. Where this gets a little bit more complicated is when a drink is actually orange cordial but may be labelled as "orange drink" which is technically correct but can be misleading for some consumers.
4. The allergen warnings
There are plenty of images on the internet of bizarre food labelling, such as a peanut butter jar stating "May contain traces of peanuts". However, allergen labelling is very important for those who have allergies to certain foods. It also protects the manufacturers against potential law suits.
5. The date markings
Date markings in sustainability are a very contentious issue. These date markings include dates such as the production date, the packaging date and the best before date. Oftentimes, the best before date or expiry date is set way before the product will actually expire or not be at its best. This leads to a lot of food wastage. Some suggestions have been made to combat this, including wording around the fact that while the food may have a best before date, it does not mean the food will necessarily be inedible by that date and consumer discretion is encouraged.
6. The directions for use and storage
For products which need to be kept in certain temperatures, the label must indicate this. For products which need to be consumed within a certain period after opening, the label must indicate this also.
7. The country of origin
This is a popular topic of conversation in Australia and an important one for economic sustainability. Consumers are being encouraged to buy local products wherever possible in order to assist in stimulating the local and national economy.
8. Any other nutrition claims
Additional nutritional claims, such as eating a certain product everyday reduces one's risk of cardiovascular disease, must be founded by scientific research and adhere to a certain set of standards set out by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
What about other kinds of labelling?
Food Standards Australia New Zealand does not require any food products to include information which relates to religious preparation, environmental concerns, animal welfare concerns or human rights issues.
You may see labelling around these topics, such as products which promote being either halal or kosher, products which promote their neutral or negative carbon footprint, products which promote being RSPCA-approved or dolphin friendly or products which promote being fair trade or uninvolved in any child labour practices.
At Strategic Sustainability Consultants, we encourage all our clients to include as much information as possible when it comes to sustainability. We are also committed to working with our partners at the Global Goals Australia Campaign to advocate for increased labelling when it comes to social and environmental sustainability on food products.