How much trust do you have in food labels?

Food Standards Australia New Zealand recalled 16 different coconut drinks and coconut products during September and October 2015. That represents 76% of all recalls during that period.

The reason for the recalls is worrying. Each and every recall was due to the presence of an undeclared allergen - dairy. For someone with a dairy intolerance or allergy, the impact would be bad.

If you don’t have a dairy intolerance, you might be thinking ‘big deal, it won’t worry me’ but for others, their faith in food labels is falling. If a manufacturer doesn’t list an ingredient that triggers an allergic reaction, how good are the rest of their label statements including the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)?

Did you know?

  1. The nutrition information on labels represent an average nutrient composition only. That’s because nutrient profiles of base ingredients vary considerably due to many factors including the variety harvested, season, growing area, country, ripeness, and processing methods. From one season to another, from one region to another, from one selection out of a batch to the next, there will be substantial variation.
  2. Not all manufacturers chemically analyse their products’ nutrient profiles. It is not required by law.
  3. Some manufacturers use food composition data to mathematically estimate the nutrient profile. Anyone can do this online for free and it seems pretty easy to the newcomer but there is enormous room for error unless you really know what you are doing.
  4. The serve size described on food labels is not set to a standard weight or volume, which makes comparisons between products difficult. Expect variation between manufacturers, brands and even within-brand varieties.
  5. Food labeling laws and requirements vary from country to country but foods sold in Australia and New Zealand ought to comply with the same Food Standards. Errors may slip in when manufacturers or importers attempt to convert a foreign food label to comply with Australian standards.
  6. The edible weight and nutrition profile described may not account for the cooking method and additional ingredients needed to cook it. Think oil needed to fry potato chips, water to hydrate rice, evaporation of moisture with cooking. These all impact on the energy and nutrients listed for the given weight. The fine print may not reveal this.
  7. Australia and New Zealand share the same Food Standards and the detail about them is found online at FoodStandards.

What are you to do?

  • Accept the the NIP is a general guide. It is not a precise table so don’t angst over minor differences in nutrients and kilojoules listed between products.
  • Work out whether the NIP’s numbers account for draining, preparation, rehydration and cooking. If not, the NIP barely helps you at all.
  • Be first to find out about food recalls. Food recalls are not limited to allergen declarations and label breaches but also alert you to product contamination, presence of undeclared allergens, and food safety issues such as presence of glass fragments and undesired bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli.
  • Read labels and if you spot a food label that you think is in error or have an unexpected allergic reaction, contact the manufacturer. If you are certain there is a problem and need to make a complaint, go higher. FoodStandards list contacts for enforcement agencies in Australia and New Zealand. Click here for your local contact.
  • Choose more fresh vegetables, salad vegetables and fruits. They don’t have a label to read. Basic important foods don’t have a label or nutrition panel. Think of the time saved by not having to pour over nutrition panels in an effort to choose a ‘best-for-you’ product!
  • Be on guard and look out for the obvious firm white fat on meats from the butcher. Trim off the obvious fat and throw it away to get more protein and minerals yet fewer kilojoules per mouthful. Fresh unprocessed meats don’t need a label.
  • Before you do any extra maths, measure up your serve size against that stated on the label. The serve you consume may be entirely different in size to the serve described on the label.

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