Food labels explained

Food labels contain important information to help consumers make decisions about:

  • nutrition
  • allergies
  • origin of food
  • food safety. 

Essentially food labels are there to provide us with basic information about what is in the food we eat.

All food labels must conform to the labelling provisions of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code including misleading information. Within South Australia, SA Health enforces this. 

Why the need for food labels

Food labels provide information to help us make healthier and safer food choices. They:

  • tell us which nutrients, in what amounts, are in a product
  • warn us if a food contains food allergens
  • inform us if the food is fresh or out of date
  • explain how to store, prepare or cook the food we buy
  • list product ingredients
  • provide information on where the food was produced and by which company.

What information can you find on a label

Food identification

All food labels must give a name for the food which is either prescribed by the Code (for instance infant formula), or is a name/description that describes the true nature of the food. Under Fair Trading and Food laws, these names must be accurate and not misinform or deceive the consumer.

For food recall purposes, business contact information for food should be found on labels. You may also see other information that will help a business to identify when and where the food was made, for example a lot identification code.

Mandatory advisory and warning information

It is mandatory for certain advisory and warning information to be on food labels. One example is the declaration of allergens present in the food.

Ingredients list

Ingredients are always listed from greatest to smallest by how much they weigh including any added water and food additives. Sometimes within ingredients lists you will see a percentage in brackets next to a particular ingredient for example, apples (26%). This is known as percentage labelling. The percentage lists the proportion of the characterising ingredients/components included in the food.

Date marking

Food that has a shelf life less than 2 years will have a date mark normally stated as either a 'use by date' or a 'best before date'.

Use by dates

Used if a manufacturer or packer believes that the food should not be consumed after a certain date for health and safety reasons. Foods labelled with a use by date cannot be sold after the date labelled.

Best before dates

Used on most other foods and can be sold after the labelled date has expired however the quality may be reduced. Examples of foods where best before dates would be used include shelf-stable foods like:

  • biscuits or confectionery
  • frozen foods
  • most raw foods that will be cooked before being eaten like meat or chicken
  • foods that will noticeably spoil before becoming unsafe.

Storage requirements and directions for use

Where required for health and safety reasons, a manufacturer or packer will sometimes provide additional information on the how the food should be stored or give directions for how to use or prepare a food for example, ‘refrigerate after opening’.

Nutrition information

You will be able to find nutrition information on most foods about the energy, protein, fat (total and saturated fats), carbohydrate (including sugars) and sodium content.

You may also sometimes see nutrition, health and related claims. These are voluntary statements that may be made by businesses on food labels (and in advertising) however if they are made, they must meet requirements prescribed in the Code.

Country of origin

Packaged foods will have a country of origin statement on the label.

Unpackaged food

Even where the food is fresh or not in a packet, the retailer must be able to provide to you on request any information about:

  • the presence of any ingredients which are allergens
  • the directions for storing and/or preparing the food if these are required to ensure its safe use
  • the country of origin of the food
  • if a nutrition claim is made about a food: its nutrient content as required on packaged food
  • the percentage fat if a claim about fat is made
  • the proportion of the characterising ingredient of a mixed food
  • whether the food contains a genetically modified ingredient or is irradiated.

Complaints about food labels

If a food is being sold after a use-by date, you can report it to the store in the first instance. Often this is just an oversight.

If a food is otherwise incorrectly labelled correctly you can report it to SA Health.

If you think use-by dates have been deliberately altered, scratched out or another sticker placed over the original, raise it with management and report it to SA Health.

SA Health will take action against any retailer that knowingly sells unsafe food, or sells food beyond its use-by date.