Food labelling: an overview
Back-of-pack nutrition declarations are mandatory in most countries
There are rules around nutrition content claims such as ‘low in sugar’
Government-led front-of-pack nutrition labelling can be used to promote healthy diets
Packaged food is overtaking meals prepared from scratch in many diets around the world. It can be difficult for consumers to assess the nutritional value of packaged foods, which are often processed and frequently contain high levels of harmful nutrients such as added sugars, sodium and saturated fats.1 Consumers are confronted by a multitude of product options, and may be confused by misleading health claims on packs. There is evidence that increased consumption of highly processed food and drinks is contributing significantly to the global epidemic of overweight and obesity.1
The food label is contested real estate. For the food industry, the food label provides marketing space. For governments, it is a potential public health tool. In Australia and globally, there are a range of both mandatory requirements and voluntary initiatives that shape how nutrition information is presented to consumers.
As a public health intervention, nutrition labelling is important to inform and guide consumers towards healthier choices. It also has the potential to influence the behaviour of food companies by incentivising them to create healthier recipes. There are various components of food labelling, as detailed below.
Back-of-pack nutrition declarations
Back-of-pack nutrition declarations are mandatory in most countries, and typically comprise a standardised declaration of nutrients (usually in table format) and a statement of ingredients. Global guidance on these components of the nutrition label is contained in Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling2 and the General Standard for the Labelling of Prepacked Foods,3 issued by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards agency.
Nutrition Information Panel
In Australia and New Zealand, the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) is regulated by Standard 1.2.8 of the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code (Code).4 The Code sets out the range of information required and the manner in which it should be provided. A NIP must be included on all packaged food (apart from several specific exemptions) and provides information on the average amount of energy, protein, (total) fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars per serve and 100g (or 100ml for liquid).
Information ‘per serve’ is provided on the basis of manufacturer recommendation and may differ from what is typically consumed, so provision of information per 100g/100mL can allow a better understanding of a product’s nutritional composition and facilitate comparison between products. Additional nutrient information is required when particular nutrition claims are made (for example, the quantity of fibre where a product is noted to be a ‘good source’ of fibre).
Statement of Ingredients
In addition to the Nutrition Information Panel, all products must have a Statement of Ingredients, regulated by Standard 1.2.4 of the Code. This must contain all ingredients by their common, generic or descriptive name in descending order from highest weight. It also contains information on any additives and preservatives, and any relevant allergen information (for example, ‘may contain traces of nuts’).
Nutrition content and health claims
Beyond the mandatory requirements of food labelling, manufacturers may also voluntarily apply nutrition content and health claims about their products on food labels, provided they comply with Standard 1.2.7 of the Code.
Nutrition content claims are claims about the content of certain nutrients or substances in a food, such as ‘low in sugar’ or ‘high in fibre’. Provisions for what qualifies as ‘low’ or ‘high in’ are provided by the Code. These claims are commonly used as a marketing tactic to increase a product’s appeal to consumers, but do not necessarily signify a healthier choice overall i.e. a product which is ‘low in saturated fat’ could be high in sugars.
Health claims refer to a relationship between a food and health, rather than simply a statement of content. There are two types: general level and high level, which each have their own requirements for display. Health claims are only permitted on foods that meet the nutrient profile scoring criterion so are not allowed on foods high in saturated fat, sugar or salt. All health claims must also be supported by scientific evidence.
For more information, see Nutrition content claims and health claims on packs.
Front-of-pack nutrition labelling
Recognising that many consumers find back-of-pack nutrition information overly complex, the World Health Organization recommends countries consider front-of-pack nutrition labelling as part of a suite of comprehensive policies to promote healthier diets.5 These kinds of labels typically employ logos, symbols and colours on the front-of-pack to simplify nutrition information and enhance its prominence on pack. The policy objective is two-fold:
- to help consumers make healthier food choices, and
- to encourage industry to reformulate products to create healthier options.
Front-of-pack nutrition labelling is proliferating globally in a variety of formats. In Australia and New Zealand, governments have led development of the Health Star Rating System. For more information see Front-of-pack nutrition labelling.
Kilojoule labelling schemes for fast food chains
Beyond packaged food, some governments have introduced kilojoule labelling schemes for items purchased at fast food chains. Menu labelling schemes providing kilojoule information have now been introduced in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory,6 and a scheme is under consideration in Western Australia.7
In other jurisdictions, menu labelling has started to incorporate ‘interpretive’ elements, such as New York’s ‘salt-shaker’ icon, which appears next to items that exceed a threshold of sodium.8
For more information on kilojoule labelling in fast food outlets, see Kilojoule labelling in fast food outlets.