How to read food labels
Reading food labels helps you know which food and drink is right for you. Here’s what each part of the label means and what to do if you find a problem with a food label.
'Use by' or 'best before' dates (date marks)
Date marks indicate how long food can be kept before it starts to deteriorate or becomes unsafe to eat. Most packaged foods with a shelf life of up to 2 years require a date mark, except for individual portions of ice cream or food products in small packages (such as chewing gum), where there is no food safety concern.
The date marks are:
- Use By – don't eat the food after the date. It's illegal to sell food past a Use By date.
- Best Before – may still be safe to eat after the date but the food may have lost some quality. Food can be sold beyond a Best Before date as long as it's still fit for human consumption.
- Baked On/Baked For – can be found on bread products with a shelf life of less than 7 days.
Food manufacturers or suppliers must also include on the label any specific food storage instructions needed to keep the food safe to eat.
Allergen declarations (allergy labels)
Because allergies to certain food proteins (allergens) can be life threatening, the most common food allergens must be declared on a food label, or information about them should be available at the point of sale.
The most common food allergens are:
- added sulphites
- soya beans (soybeans) or their products
- shellfish, such as mussels, oysters
- crustacea, such as crab, lobster
- fish and fish products
- egg and egg products
- milk and milk products
- sesame seeds
- tree nuts, including almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts, but not coconut.
- cereals containing gluten, such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt
Allergens must be declared if they are added as an ingredient, part of a compound ingredient, an additive, a processing aid or component of these.
Warning and advisory statements
A warning statement is required for products that contain royal jelly, because any allergic reaction can be severe.
Advisory statements (different to warning statements) are required on some foods that:
- contain less well-known allergens
- may be a health risk to particular population groups
- contain substances that don't need to be listed in the ingredients but can pose a risk to some sensitive individuals.
Advisory statements are required on:
- foods that contain bee pollen, aspartame, quinine, guarana, phytosterols, phytosterol esters, and propolis
- low fat milks (including soy and rice milk), kola beverages containing caffeine, unpasteurised egg products, and unpasteurised (raw) milk and milk products.
When a complete label is not required (for example, on takeaway food), if the food contains common allergens or substances that require an advisory or warning statement, the information must be displayed alongside the food, or be available if you ask for it.
The statement 'may contain traces of' is not required by law, but is often used by manufacturers for foods that may unintentionally contain traces of allergens from cross-contamination. It is up to you to decide whether such statements have any merit.
Supplier name and address
Food labels must have New Zealand or Australia contact details of the producer, manufacturer or importer, for product recalls and customer enquiries. There must be a physical address, not just a PO Box number or website.
Country of origin
Country of origin labelling is voluntary in New Zealand, except for wine. Suppliers (usually manufacturers, transporters, or sellers) may choose not to display the country of origin. A wine label must include a statement indicating the country of origin.
Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
The 7 key nutrient components of food are listed in the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). This helps you compare products for the overall energy (kilojoules or calories), the level of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, among others.
Some food packages don't require a Nutrition Information Panel, for example, if they are very small (like chewing gum) or have minimal nutrition (like herbs, spices, herbal infusions, tea or coffee, vinegar, salt, water or jam setting compounds). Alcoholic beverages (including kits for producing them) also don't require a Nutrition Information Panel.
A Nutrition Information Panel is also required when there are nutrition content claims or health claims made about the product. For example, if there is a claim about the calcium content of a food, the Nutrition Information Panel must also show the level of calcium present.
The ingredient list shows any ingredient in the food, including added water, food additives and compound ingredients (ingredients that are themselves made up of 2 or more ingredients, such as chocolate chips or icing).
Food additives – including code numbers, preservatives, flavouring, and colouring
The 3-digit codes in the ingredient list are unique international identification numbers for food additives. Food additives are natural or synthetic chemicals added during manufacture to extend the product's shelf life, or make the product more appealing. The code numbers save space and avoid confusion over similar names.
Food additives are listed according to their function and name or code, for example, 'Thickener (pectin)' or 'Thickener (440)'. If you need to know more about a specific food additive (such as whether it's derived from plant or animal origin), contact the manufacturer. Contact details will be on the label.
MPI's guide book Identifying Food Additives will help you identify food additives used in the foods you most commonly buy.
Identifying Food Additives guide book [PDF, 566 KB]
Nutrition content claims, health claims, and endorsements are voluntary statements made by food businesses on labels and in advertising about the content of specific nutrients or substances in a food, or the relationship between food and health.
However, health claims and nutrition content claims must not be made about:
- a food that contains more than 1.15% alcohol by volume, other than a nutrition content claim about carbohydrate content, or energy content, or gluten content.
- on infant formula or follow-on formula.
There are 2 categories of health claims:
- General level health claims – these refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its effect on health. For example "Calcium is good for bones".
- High level health claims – these refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its relationship to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease. For example "Diets high in calcium and vitamin D may reduce the risk of osteoporosis".
Health claims are only permitted on foods that meet the nutrient profiling scoring criterion (NPSC). For example, health claims are not allowed on foods high in saturated fat, sugar, or salt.
Nutrition content claims
Nutrition content claims indicate the presence or absence of specified nutrients or substances in the food. For example "low in fat" or "a good source of calcium". These claims will need to meet certain criteria set out in the Code.
Rules for health and nutrition content claims
Food businesses that want to use health or nutrition content claims on their products have to meet set criteria, depending on the nature of the claim. For example, if using 'low in fat' or 'a good source of calcium' – these claims will need to meet certain criteria set out in the Food Standards Code.
Most of the space on a food package is likely to be used for branding, advertising or marketing purposes. It is up to you to determine the significance of advertising and brand names.
Advertising or marketing material on food packages must comply with the Fair Trading Act (1986) and the Food Act (2014) and not mislead consumers about the product. The Fair Trading Act prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct, false representations and unfair practices.
The Act covers all advertising and selling of goods and services (except private sales) and is administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and enforced by the Commerce Commission.
Advertising on food packages generally should not contain any information that is prohibited in the Code from being included in a label for that food.
Alcoholic beverages and foods containing alcohol have many of the same labelling requirements as regular food. However, beer, fruit wine, wine, and spirits, including liqueurs, don't require an ingredient list, nutrition information panel, or percentage labelling.
Alcohol percentage and number of standard drinks
The number of standard drinks a beverage contains and the amount of alcohol content by volume, must be shown on the label. (One standard drink means the amount of that beverage, which contains 10 grams of ethanol, measured at 20 degrees Celsius.) For example, a 750ml bottle of wine of 12.5% alcohol by volume would be labelled as 'Contains approximately 7.4 standard drinks'.
Meaning of 'low alcohol', 'non-alcoholic' and 'non-intoxicating'
Labels should not represent an alcoholic beverage that contains more than 1.15% alcohol by volume as a low alcoholic beverage.
Any beverage that contains more than 0.5% alcohol by volume should not have a label that includes the words 'non-intoxicating' or words of a similar meaning.
At a glance, you can see whether a food product contains any GM-derived ingredients because they must be stated in the ingredient list. This includes any food additive, processing aid or flavouring that contains modified DNA or protein, or any food having altered characteristics as a result of GM (for example, soybeans with high oleic acid content).
Foods served in a restaurant or cafe, or from a takeaway are exempt from these labelling requirements. If you need to know more, ask the staff.
Products that unintentionally contain GM material at less than 1% don’t have to have a GM label, although food businesses are required to take all reasonable steps to avoid this happening. Flavourings that make up less than 0.1% of a food are also exempt.
Food treated with ionising radiation to kill unwanted pests and micro-organisms is known as irradiated food. Some tropical fruits and tomatoes imported from Queensland may be irradiated, as are some imported herbs and spices and herbal infusions (excluding tea).
Fruits and vegetables that may be irradiated include apple, apricot, breadfruit, capsicum, carambola (star fruit) cherry, custard apple, honeydew, litchi (lychee), longan, mango, mangosteen, nectarine, papaya, (paw paw), peach, persimmon, plum, rambutan, rockmelon, scallopini, strawberry, table grape, tomato and zucchini (courgette). These must be clearly labelled as irradiated. When a full label is not required, this information must be displayed on or close to the food at all points of sale.
Report a problem with a food label
Minor problems with food labels
If you see a misprint, misspelling or miscalculation, use the address on the label to tell the food importer or manufacturer.
Misleading advertising and marketing (on food packaging or elsewhere)
If you see something wrong or misleading on food packaging or advertising that isn't about food suitability or safety, including claims like kosher, halal, organic or sustainable, you may complain to the Commerce Commission.
Problems with food labels related to food safety and suitability
MPI can investigate problems with food labels that relate to food safety and suitability. This includes misleading health and nutrition content claims, undeclared ingredients and allergens, and more.