Understanding food labels

Food labels can be misleading

Food packets in New Zealand must have two types of nutrition information:

  • Ingredients list
  • Nutrition Information Panel

You may also see health and nutrition claims and endorsements, approval stamps and ticks. These give food manufacturers the chance to promote the possible health and nutrition benefits of their products. Unfortunately, claims may also create misleading impressions and over emphasise the importance of certain nutrients.

How to read an ingredients list

Manufactured foods sold in New Zealand must display an ingredients list. It tells you what ingredients are in the food. They are listed in order, with the main ingredient at the top of the list.

You can gain valuable nutrition information by checking the content and order of ingredients. For example, if sugar and /or fat are listed near the top of the list you can be sure it forms a significant proportion of the food and it is not a healthy option.

Food additives

Food additives are natural or synthetic chemicals added during manufacture to extend the product’s shelf life, or to add colour, flavour or texture to make the product more appealing. They are listed by name or an approved numbering system.
Download a booklet about identifying food additives (PDF) from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

Nutrition Information Panels 

Manufactured foods sold in New Zealand must display a Nutrition Information Panel. It tells you how much energy, protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, sugar and sodium is in the product. Panels are usually on the back of the packet and display the amounts of the nutrients per 100g as well as per serving.
Look carefully at the ‘serving size’. It is often much smaller than you would eat in one sitting. For example, a 375ml can of drink contains 1.88 standard servings even though you would probably drink the whole can in one sitting. Compare the 100gm or 100ml column to provide a more consistent understanding.

Understanding Nutrition Information Panels

Learn to read Nutrition Information Panels with your children. It is easy and can be fun.
You can compare products and find the healthiest option by looking at the ‘per 100g’ column then checking the amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and fibre it contains.
The Healthy Food Guide’s Label Detective (PDF) can help you decide what to look for.

Nutrition and health claims

Many children’s foods have nutrition claims such as ‘low in fat’ or ‘high in fibre’. They may also have nutrient function claims such as ‘calcium is good for healthy bones and teeth’. These are both permitted in New Zealand. 

Nutrition claims are often misleading. They don’t tell the full story. Foods may be ‘high in fibre’ but they may also be high in salt, sugar or fat.
Check any claims against the ingredients list and Nutrition Information Panel. You may be surprised.
New Zealand bans all health claims except health claims about the benefit of folate (folic acid) for women of child bearing age.
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards website has more information on nutrition, health and related claims.

Endorsements, approval stamps and ticks

Food manufacturers use approval stamps or endorsements on their food labels as a marketing tool. Endorsements may make the food seem healthy to consumers, but they can be misleading. Examples include:
  • Pick the Tick, Heart Foundation
  • Weight Watchers Approved Meals at McDonalds. 
An endorsed food does not mean it should be eaten regularly. Use the Nutrition Information Panel instead.