Understanding food labels and nutritional information


Understanding food labels and nutritional information

Updated September 2023 | 5 min read
Expert contributor Nicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian

If you're wanting to make healthier food choices, understanding food labelling and nutritional labels is an important first step. Here are some ways to increase your nutritional know-how and shop smarter.

Judging how healthy a packaged food is can be a puzzling exercise. But knowing how to understand its health claims, nutritional panel and ingredients is an important skill to have up your sleeve if you want to make healthy choices in the supermarket.

Nicole Dynan, an accredited practising dietitian, says food labels can be confusing because of the number of ingredients that need to be listed and monitored for their nutritional value. But becoming label-savvy is well worth your while.

“While packaged foods can be low in nutrition, many are convenient and, if you know what to look for, can be a part of a healthy diet,” she says.

Food labelling requirements in Australia

Check the nutritional information on packaged foods and you’ll find the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a serve and in 100g (or 100ml) of the food.

The serve doesn’t necessarily include the whole can or packet, though, and the size of a serve can vary from product to product. Servings per package is how many portions the manufacturer states are in a package of its food.

If a nutrition claim is made on the pack, like “high in calcium”, the label must show the amount of that ingredient, says Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

The nutrition panel must show the percentage of key ingredients, so you can find out if a strawberry yoghurt, for example, contains only 6% strawberries.

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if the first two or three ingredients are sugar or saturated fat, they’re the highest-proportion ingredients and it’s a good idea to find a healthier option.

Ingredients and allergens

Some other ingredients that must be listed are nuts, seafood, milk, sesame and soybeans because they may cause an allergic reaction in some people, and cereals such as wheat or rye that contain gluten.

Added sugars

Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar – these are all names for sugar, according to the National Medical Research Council, and are commonly found on food labelling.

Nicole suggests sticking to no more than six teaspoons (or 24g) of added sugars a day. Added sugars include sugar in packaged foods, honey, syrups, fruit juices, or sugar added by a chef. It doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars in fruit, vegetables and milk.

The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of your energy intake (or, ideally, 5%) should come from added sugars. As a quick rule of thumb, don’t buy anything with more than 15g of sugar per 100g.

Unhealthy vs healthy fats

The total fat listed on your pizza, croissant or frozen fish includes all polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats – which means both unhealthy and healthy fats are included.

Fat should make up less than 30% of your diet, with saturated fats less than 10% of your total energy intake and trans fats less than 1%, says the World Health Organization.

While polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease, both saturated fats and trans fats increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Australian manufacturers aren’t required to declare trans fats on the label, although some of them do.

Saturated and trans fats are typically found in biscuits, pies, pastries and popcorn, the fat you can see on meat and chicken, deep-fried food, palm oil and coconut oil.

Be careful of ‘low fat’ products, Nicole cautions, as when fat is removed, extra sugar may be added to make up for lost flavour or texture. This is when your sugar detective work will come in handy.

“What that means is that the kilojoules may be the same as a full-fat product,” she says.

Stick to the Queensland Health guidelines by not putting anything with more than 10g of saturated fat per 100g in your shopping trolley.

Words to describe fats include:

  • animal fat/oil
  • beef fat
  • butter
  • chocolate
  • milk solids
  • coconut
  • coconut oil/milk/cream
  • copha
  • cream
  • ghee
  • dripping
  • lard
  • suet
  • palm oil
  • sour cream
  • vegetable shortening.

Healthy food claims

What do healthy food claims mean? Here are a few you might see in the supermarket aisles and the recommended intake according to Queensland Health.

No added sugar

No added sugars (like sucrose, honey or glucose). But it may still contain natural sugars, such as milk (lactose), fruit (fructose) or other carbohydrates.

High fibre

Contains at least 3g of fibre per average serving. Foods that contain more than 3g of dietary fibre per 100g are considered high-fibre foods. Adults should aim for at least 25 to 30g of fibre each day.

Low salt

Less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.

Reduced salt

At least 25% less salt than the regular product. It’s important to minimise your salt intake. Healthy food options contain less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.

Low fat or 97% fat free

No more than 3g of fat per 100g. But remember, check the sugar content of anything marked fat free or low fat.

Lite or light

May refer to a reduced fat content but it may also be used to describe taste, texture or colour – best to check the food labelling to be sure.

Low joule or diet

Usually artificially sweetened and/or low fat.

Tracking your nutrition

To save time, track your daily intake of protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, and salt with the Easy Diet Diary app or the MyNetDiary app. With these apps, you can scan the barcodes of your packaged food or select from the food database to help track your nutrition.

Using an app can be helpful to see how balanced your diet really is, or to check if you're unknowingly eating or drinking a lot more of one type of food group (for example, sugars or carbohydrates) than the Australian guidelines for healthy eating suggest.

Extra support to help manage your weight

Carrying extra weight can take its toll at any stage and age. That’s why we’ve partnered with Prima Health Solutions, to give eligible members free access to our Healthy Weight for Life programs to help you improve your quality of life. These programs are available to members who are overweight and have osteoarthritis* or are at risk of developing a chronic condition*.

We also know losing weight and keeping it off over a long period of time can be challenging. That’s why we're offering eligible HCF members access to the evidence-based CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet.

You can get a 20% discount on the cost of the 12 Week Program ($159 instead of $199) with eligible extras cover or through the HCF Thank You loyalty program+.

If you have hospital cover, are aged 18 and over, have a Body Mass Index of 28 or above, and have multiple lifestyle risk factors, you may be eligible to join the Total Wellbeing Diet Premium Plus 16 Week Program for free#.

Related articles


Sugar has been getting a bad rap lately. Is it really that bad? How much is ok? We look beyond the headlines to the science of sugar.


When it comes to diet and nutrition, there are plenty of misconceptions out there. We sort fact from fiction to help you stay on track.


If you’re confused about the health benefits of the latest popular diets here’s what you need to know.


In a world of trending diets and food fads, don’t forget the benefits of simply eating whole foods, says dietician Dr Tim Crowe.

Important information

* Eligibility criteria applies. For more information see hcf.com.au/hwfl

+ Eligibility criteria applies. You can access HCF Thank You offers after you’ve been a member for a week, and if your premiums are up to date. Excludes Ambulance Only and Overseas Visitors Health Cover. Offers and partners are subject to change without advance notice. See the HCF Thank You terms and conditions.

# Must have hospital cover, be aged 18 and over, have multiple lifestyle risk factors (eg. smoking, physical inactivity and poor nutrition) and a Body Mass Index of 28 or above. Excludes Ambulance Only, Accident Only and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

This communication contains information which is copyright to The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF). It should not be copied, disclosed or distributed without the authority of HCF. Except as required by law, HCF does not represent, warrant and/or guarantee that this communication is free from errors, virus, interception or interference. All reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure the accuracy of material contained on this website. It’s not intended that this website be comprehensive or render advice. HCF members should rely on authoritative advice they seek from qualified practitioners in the health and medical fields as the information provided on this website is general information only and may not be suitable to individual circumstances or health needs. Please check with your health professional before making any dietary, medical or other health decisions as a result of reading this website.