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Knowing where your food products come from and what they contain is more important than ever. Karen Fittall demystifies food labels for you.

The issue of where and how our food is produced came under the spotlight again earlier this year when an outbreak of hepatitis A in Australia was linked to people eating frozen berries imported from China.The health scare highlighted a problem with the current ‘country of origin’ labelling, with research revealing almost one in two of the labels on frozen fruit and vegetable products contains vague and unhelpful claims.

In March, the Federal Government announced a plan to introduce new country-of-origin labelling laws to make the information clearer. And in June it sought public opinion on six different ‘Australian made’ labels, designed to provide more information about what proportion of a local product’s ingredients are sourced from Australia. The new labelling could be introduced before the end of the year But for now, here’s how to make sense of food labels.

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WHERE DOES THE FOOD COME FROM

Labels include ‘country of origin’ information but it can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know about the three most widely-used claims.

MADE IN (COUNTRY NAME) FROM LOCAL AND IMPORTED INGREDIENTS:

This means that some of the ingredients came from the country where the product was made, but others were imported. It doesn’t tell you what proportion of the ingredients were imported or from where.

PRODUCT OF (COUNTRY NAME):

This means the product was made in that country and that most, but not necessarily all, of the ingredients come from that country too.

MADE IN (COUNTRY NAME):

The product was made in that country, but it doesn’t tell you where the ingredients came from.

WHAT’S IN IT?

Look at the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed from greatest to smallest, so the first ones make up most of the product. If you see a percentage next to an ingredient, like ‘strawberries (15%)’ on a tub of yoghurt, it tells you what proportion of the yoghurt is strawberries.

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And if a food contains gluten, sulphites or one of the eight most common food allergens, including eggs, fish and peanuts, it’ll be mentioned, no matter how small the content.

HOW HEALTHY IS IT?

Check the food’s Health Star Rating. It’s a voluntary food labelling system developed by the government in collaboration with various agencies, including Food Standards Australia New Zealand. It gives packaged foods a rating out of five based on kilojoules and how nutritious they are.

Star ratings are determined using a calculator designed to  assess the positive and risky nutrients in the food, and  the more stars the better. Just remember that it’s designed to help you choose the healthiest option within the same category, rather than comparing all products on the market.

For example, you might see a ‘treat’ food like cake carrying more stars than a particular brand of bread. That doesn’t mean you’re better off eating the cake, just that when you’re comparing cakes, the one with three stars is the better choice because it probably contains less saturated fat and sugar  than a cake with two stars.

Food producers don’t pay a licence fee to be involved. However, it’s voluntary, so  if a product doesn’t rate well a producer could simply choose not to be involved. You can also check how healthy a food is by reading the nutrition information panel. As a guide, per 100g, look for a sugar content less than 15g, a sodium (or salt) content less than 400mg and less than 10g of total fat and 3g of the saturated variety. The panel is also handy for comparing products when you compare the ‘per 100g’ measurements rather than the ‘per serve’ ones, as serving sizes can differ.

CAN YOU TRUST THE LABEL’S CLAIMS?

Yes and no. A product can’t make a nutritional claim on the packaging without meeting certain criteria, so when you see ‘good source of calcium’, it has to contain at least 25 per cent of the recommended daily intake for calcium. And fat-free foods must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat.

But dietitian Melanie McGrice says you should still think twice. “Fat-free  doesn’t mean kilojoule-free and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy, particularly if  it’s used on something that never contained fat, like sugary sweets. And ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t mean a product is sugar-free, just that extra sugar hasn’t been added.

Natural sugars can still be high in kilojoules, so always read the nutrition information panel.”

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HOW FRESH IS IT?

Packaged foods that have a shelf life of less than two years are stamped with a date mark. There are two types:

‘BEST BEFORE’ DATE – means the food might lose some quality once the date’s passed, but it’s still safe to  eat as long as it doesn’t look or smell ‘off ’.

’USE BY’ DATE – means you shouldn’t eat the food once it’s past the date because, even if it looks fine, it’s  probably developed bacteria. Whether or not the food makes it in good shape to  either date can depend on how it’s stored. Look for storage instructions on the label, like ‘keep refrigerated after opening’.

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