Food Law Update: Australia 12 Sep 2018 Some added regulation: Changes ahead for labelling sugar

Time to pay attention to your company's sugar labelling

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 What you need to know

  • The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (Forum) has concluded that current food labelling is inadequate to enable consumers to make informed decisions in relation to sugar, and is in the process of considering alternatives for reform.
  • There is increased public and regulator attention regarding health and nutrition claims relating to sugar.

What you need to do

  • Ensure that your company's food labelling is accurate and complies with existing requirements, especially in relation to sugar content.
  • Monitor the development of new regulations and consider making submissions to the Forum, especially as new labelling options (such as front of package "warnings") are considered.
  • Submissions to the Forum's public consultation close on 19 September 2018.

Food law and sugar

In Australia, sugar and other ingredients are regulated by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (Code).

The Code can be somewhat difficult to follow. For example, "sugars" is defined differently in relation to health and nutrition claims, than for the rest of the Code, and "sugar" (without the second "s") has a different meaning again.

However, for the purposes of this article and most of the Code, it is sufficient to define "sugars" as monosaccharides (eg glucose) and disaccharides (eg sucrose).

Current law 

Existing regulations impose a number of restrictions and requirements in relation to sugar.

Compulsory labelling requirements

Products must list the total amount of sugars in a food in the nutrition information panel, both as part of carbohydrate content and separately.

Further, food packaging must contain a statement of ingredients (in descending order by weight). At present, the generic label "sugar" can be used for various forms of sucrose, while the generic name "sugars" is not permitted.

Conditions on nutrition claims

There are also specific restrictions for claims about sugar content, summarised below:

Claim Conditions

"low sugar" or
"[X]% sugar free"

Must contain:

  • <2.5% sugar (g/ml) for liquids
  • <5% sugar (g/g) for solid food

"light" or "reduced sugar"

Must contain at least 25% less sugar than the reference food
"no added sugar"
Must not contain any added sugars, honey, malt or concentrated fruit juice (subject to some exceptions for drinks)
 "unsweetened" Must satisfy requirements for "no added sugar" and also not contain any intense sweeteners (being ingredients like sorbitol, mannitol, glycerol, xylitol etc)

Upcoming changes to sugar labelling requirements

While labelling of sugar is not a new area of interest, global attention was drawn to the issue in 2015, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a Guideline, recommending that no more than 10% of a person's daily energy intake should come from "free sugars". "Free sugars" (ie, "added sugars") are defined as sugars added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and include natural sugars from honey, syrups and fruit juices / concentrates.

In April 2017, the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (Forum) commenced an investigation into the labelling of sugars in food. This included a literature review, consideration of international approaches, and assessment of policy factors in Australia and New Zealand. In November 2017, the Forum completed its Stage 1 review and concluded that:

"information about sugar provided on food labels does not provide adequate contextual information to enable consumers to make informed choices in support of dietary guidelines."

In particular, existing regulations have been criticised on the basis that there are over forty different labels under which "free sugars" may appear in a statement of ingredients, and the nutrition information panel does not distinguish "free sugars" from other sugars.

In light of this finding, the Forum is investigating reforms of labelling requirements for sugars, and is currently in the process of defining the objectives this reform should seek to achieve. Interestingly, the stage 1 review considered international approaches including amendments to the statement of ingredients, or even the more invasive front of packet "warning labels", such as those introduced in Chile (Figure 1), or proposed in Canada (Figure 2).

Fig 1. Current labels in Chile - extracted in Forum report.

Fig 2. Labels under consideration in Canada - extracted in Forum report.

The Forum has also opened a public consultation, which closes on 19 September 2018. This calls for comments on six policy options (which may not be mutually exclusive), in addition to existing regulations. These six options are:

  1. education on how to read and interpret labelling information about sugars;
  2. changes to the statement of ingredients;
  3. added sugars quantified in the nutrition information panel (NIP);
  4. advisory labels for foods high in added sugars;
  5. pictorial approaches to convey the amount or types of sugars in a serving of food; and
  6. digital linking to off label web-based information about added sugars content.

While it remains to be seen which approach the Forum will propose, or indeed the objectives the Forum will seek to achieve through reform, it is clear that change is on the horizon for the labelling of sugar in Australia.

In light of this climate of review and imminent reform, businesses should closely monitor the compliance of their current or proposed food packaging, and be aware of upcoming developments, as well as any opportunities to make submissions.


Authors: Joanna Lawrence, Counsel and Tim Rankin, Lawyer

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The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Readers should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.

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