Information Overload On Food Packaging

As consumers have become better educated and more health conscious, they have, over the past two decades, demanded more information about the nutrient content of packaged foodstuffs. Campaigns by organizations such as Choice (formerly the Australian Consumers Association), and the use of Choice Magazine to make public the results of independent testing on a wide range of consumer goods and foodstuffs, have advocated for disclosure of the contents of any consumer food or product on the external packaging. Along with the work of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, there is now so much information on food packaging that the ordinary shopper has difficulty understanding what it all means.

Most consumers are familiar with the term “use by” date, and think they understand it, but there is another, very similar term, that also sounds familiar – “best before” – and there is a difference. If food needs to be consumed before a specified period of time because of health and safety reasons, the food packaging must be date marked with a “use by” date, and the sale of these foods after that date is prohibited. However, foods marked with a “best before” date can continue to be sold after that date provided the food is not damaged, deteriorated or perished.

More complex is the information shown on the nutrition panels on nearly all packaged foods. These panels will list how much energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar and sodium (salt) is in the product. This information is listed by serve, which is determined by the manufacturer, and is also listed by 100 grams, which enables the consumer to compare products.

Food items must also show a list of ingredients, in descending order by ingoing weight, so that the largest amount comes first. Usually items like fats, sugars and salt (sodium) are at the beginning of the list. The label must also show the key or characterizing ingredient if there is one. Fair trading laws require that the label should tell the truth about the contents i.e. if the label pictures a mango, for example, the product must contain mango. Food additives such as sweeteners and preservatives must also be declared.

These are just some of the very basic items that must be shown on food packaging, and while it’s a positive move to inform consumers, there is a level of education and understanding of what is represented that is needed before fully informed choices can be made. Packaging suppliers are happy to answer questions, so people with doubts should feel confident to contact them.