A basic guide to understanding food labels - Part Two

Understanding foods labels is key if you want to ensure your child has a healthy diet.

understanding food labels

Part two of our basic guide shares more insight into what you need to consider when reading the labels. After reading part one, I’m sure you’re beginning to understand what marketers are telling us isn’t actually correlating with the nutritional information!

So now let’s look at the main components of the nutritional panel that cause confusion so we can make informed decisions about what we are eating and feeding our kids.


The first item on the list is the total amount of energy in kilojoules (kj). These calories are made up of fats, protein and carbohydrates. While the lower the energy figure usually means the better the food is, you need to take in account what the ingredients are. For example, the product may contain nuts and seeds which are high in calories but offer loads of nutrients making it a better source.

Total Fat

Total fat includes all kinds such as saturated, unsaturated, mono unsaturated and poly unsaturated. So, the “good” and the “bad”! Fat is important in the diet, but you just need to watch out for the trans fats and if you see that above 0g then stay away from the product!

The types of fat you might see on a food label include butter, shortening, coconut, coconut oil, full cream milk powder, egg, palm oil, vegetable oil etc.

Total Carbohydrates

Total carbohydrates are all the carbs in the product both simple and complex including sugars and dietary fibre. This is probably one of the main things I look at when reading the food label.  The thing to keep in mind is that there is over 40 types of sugars including corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, raw sugar…the list goes on!


You need to watch out for the amount of salt included in processed foods.  As with sugar, salt has many different names including baking powder, sodium, yeast extract, MSG, sodium bicarbonate, stock, nitrate, celery salt etc.

Food Additives

By law any food additives in a product must be identified on the food label with a corresponding number to inform the consumer of what is actually in the product. Some of these additives are naturally occurring in nature and others are manufactured. 

Included in food additives are:

  • Colours to make the product more appealing

  • Preservatives to keep the product from spoiling through bacteria or yeast

  • Acidity regulators (including acids and alkalis) to adjust the acid or alkaline level

  • Antioxidants to help stop oils and fats from deteriorating and developing rancid flavours

  • Emulsifiers to ensure that mixtures of oil and water based ingredients stay mixed together.

  • Stabilisers make it possible for two or more ingredients (which usually don’t stay mixed) to stay together.

  • Thickeners thicken food and ensure uniform consistency.

  • Enzymes describe a group of substances that may have diverse functions. For example, lipases assist in cheese making where milk is broken down into curds and whey. Others can act as a stabiliser, or preservative.

  • Sweeteners replace the sweetness normally provided by sugars in foods. Some are intense sweeteners and do not contribute significantly to the available energy of foods.

  • There are also bulking agents, gelling agents, anti-caking agents, foaming agents, firming agents, rising agents, flavour enhances and propellants among the list.

If you or your child expensive sensitivity to foods it is particularly important to look out for the numbers!  You can see a full list here on the FSANZ website.

It is important to be consciously aware of what you are consuming and putting on the table for your family to eat. Take the time to read the labels and become familiar with the components that are relevant to you.  Don’t be fooled by creative marketing and also remember that fresh, natural produce doesn’t have an ingredient list or food label for a reason!