Packaged and convenience foods line the aisles of every supermarket. Riddled with mystery chemical ingredients such as stabilisers and preservatives, their labelling can be almost impossible to decipher. Food manufacturers know that health sells, and product labelling is the front line in getting the message across to time-poor shoppers.

Buzz words like ‘lite’, ‘organic’, ‘scientifically proven’, ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ – claims often stamped on the front of packaging – can be misleading. ‘Lite’ doesn’t always refer to reduced fat content – it can be used to refer to a thinner consistency or reduced sugar. And science is often used to bamboozle consumers into thinking a product is better for them than the competitor. Who conducted the study and how big was it? What does it claim to prove? It pays to be wary of scientific claims.

A product claiming to be ‘95 per cent fat free’ can in fact contain a disproportionate amount of fat. By concentrating on the portion of the product that isn’t fat, the manufacturer has diverted attention from the fact that there is still five per cent fat in the product. Depending on what the product is, this can be an alarming amount. Remember this isn’t a weighted measurement of fat, but a percentage of fat concentration. Read the label to get the unvarnished truth about how much fat you are actually consuming – in grams.

Another source of confusion is the way the words are arranged in a claim. For example, does a ‘100 per cent Australian apples’ label mean a product is made entirely of apples or that it’s only partially made of apples but the apples contained in it are from Australia? It can be a minefield trying to work out what you’re actually getting.

The truth about health

The word ‘organic’ is abused widely, because it moves products off shelves and into consumers’ shopping carts. The term means different things in different countries. To ensure a product meets Australian standards for organic produce, make sure it bears the Australian Certified Organic mark. This means it is:

Free from genetically modified organisms at every stage of production. The production unit must not be used for the shared processing of any genetically modified organisms.

Produced using soil that is free from artificial fertilisers, and from plants that have been kept pest-free using mechanical and natural controls such as crop rotation.

Produced with respect for conservation values and the natural environment, and without negative impact on it.

The word ‘healthy’ itself cannot be used as a product claim except in limited circumstances, but companies can get around this by adding words like ‘health’ and ‘natural’ to their registered trade name.

The claim that a product is ‘natural’ is one to pay special attention to, because it can be used by companies to get around organic certification, and because the meaning of the word is easily stretched and manipulated – after all, even the most complex chemical compound can be traced to a natural source at some point on its journey to the supermarket shelf.

In his book Fast Food Nation, which looks at the fast food industry in the US, Eric Schlosser explains that, “Natural flavours and artificial flavours sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods.”

Just because something is natural or ‘nature identical’ doesn’t mean it is good for you. Ingredients like high sucrose corn syrup, used widely in soft drinks, and palm oil, found in a variety of processed foods, have been promoted as and are arguably ‘natural’ – but they have been linked to obesity, diabetes and a range of other diseases.

Finding your way around food packaging

Under legislation currently being reviewed, Food Standards Australia New Zealand requires most food products to have a nutritional information panel, which indicates energy content per serve and per 100 grams as well as levels of carbohydrate, fat and saturated fat, protein and sodium contained in the product. If there is a ‘characterising ingredient’, for example, oranges in orange juice, the product is required to show the percentage of that ingredient.

An ingredients list must also be visible, with ingredients (including water content) listed in descending order of quantity. In Australia it is also a requirement that the product show its country of origin.

Exceptions to the requirement for a nutritional information panel include very small packages (for example, chewing gum), foods with no significant nutritional value such as tea or a packet containing a herb or spice, foods sold unpackaged (for example, fruit) and foods made at the point of sale (for example, bread at a bakery).

Fair trading laws in both Australia and New Zealand prevent companies from making deceptive claims about their products – so for example, a carton featuring a picture of strawberries on it must contain strawberries. Food labelling also needs to be accurate. If a product contains strawberry flavouring or ‘nature-identical’ flavouring, then it needs to say so somewhere on the packet. There are also requirements relating to use-by dates and legibility of product labelling.

Shining a light on healthy choices

Although it’s clear certain nutritional facts about a product need to be included on its label, under current laws this information does not have to be placed where the consumer can see it, and all too often it is the big print that consumers read first.

A simple, standardised labelling system would compel companies that make big claims to tell the truth up front about the nutritional value of their product.

“The current nutritional information is so difficult to read – especially when you’re in the supermarket aisle with kids hanging off your arms and you need your glasses to read the tiny print,” says Australian Medical Association (AMA) Victoria president Dr Harry Hemley.

Along with a number of organisations including consumer advocate Choice and the Cancer Council, the AMA is lobbying for a simpler, front-of-pack food labelling system to be introduced to make healthy decisions easier. They also support widespread public health education, and they believe that nutrient and other information should be available on food packaging.

“Being overweight and obesity are contributing factors to many chronic illnesses affecting Australians,” Dr Hemley says. “We need to combat Australia’s high levels of obesity and promote healthy eating habits. We would like to see major changes to food labelling, particularly the introduction of colour-coded front-of-pack labels which clearly depict the product’s energy content.

“A traffic light food labelling system would help people control their weight, and hopefully, encourage food companies to limit the sugar they add to everyday items.

“Red light foods are those high in energy, and most likely to contribute to obesity; green light foods are the most nutritious and should dominate the shopping trolley; and orange light foods are somewhere in between.”

Traffic light and front-of-pack labelling will only work if they are part of much wider restrictions on claims about food content and laws compelling companies to reveal hidden ingredients that may have an impact on human health. The current overhaul of food labelling in Australia may shine more light on what we think we’re buying. Watch this space