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The most popular new year’s resolution, every year, is to eat healthier. The second, in most years, is to work out more. The third targets our financial goals, and what we might do about them.

But if you have listed eating healthier in your plan you might want to do a touch more research. Food labelling in Australia, despite increasing regulation and a bigger media focus, remains opaque, contradictory and bamboozling.

Let’s take “lite” or “light” on packaging. For the uninitiated it might seem like it means it’s light on calories. And it might. But it could also mean it’s light in texture, colour or taste — and not necessarily calories. Eating cheese simply of a different colour might not help the Christmas largesse around your waistline.

Good luck when it comes to baked not fried. That doesn’t mean it’s lower in either fat or energy; it simply describes a cooking method. Only animal products contain cholesterol, so cholesterol-free might be swimming in fat or kilojoules. No added sugar might still be high in kilojoules because of how much natural sugar it contains.

Reduce fat or “reduced salt? All that means is that there is less fat or salt than in another standard variety. It’s not a commentary on the health benefits of what you’re loading into your pantry. 

And so the list goes on. Diet food has been artificially sweetened. Low fat means it can contain up to 3% fat, and no fat can be up to 1% fat. If it’s organic, it’s organic. But don’t confuse that with sugar, fat or kilojoule levels because it might contain the same amount as the non-organic version.

And it’s not just food. Labels, instructions and get-out clauses continue to be tricky and difficult to understand, as greater transparency is demanded in almost all other areas of business.

Look at the instructions to put together a simple — so they say — school desk. Or the warranty on a toaster. Or the small print in an event cancellation during COVID-19. Or even a mortgage document.

It’s unfair, lacks the spirit that should run parallel with labelling laws, and leads to confusion for consumers.

Dr Emma Beckett, a lecturer in the school of environmental and life sciences at the University of Newcastle, says despite greater regulation, food labelling can still be manipulated to “give off a healthier vibe than it really is’’. To me, that sounds like the real estate advertisement for the renovator in the suburbs — a dilapidated, roofless shack struggling to stay upright.

Although words are regulated, consumers take them at face value. Beckett says that to have a label, a product must be processed and packaged, and that’s why the healthiest foods — in fruit and vegetable sections — don’t carry labels.

She says while labelling regulations continue to evolve, business and industry are able to get ahead of the rules. For example, while regulation now governs the use of diet and low-fat descriptions, it hasn’t “caught up with organic and plant-based’’ products. Recently she stumbled across plant-based rice that wasn’t actually rice. The reality changed faster, she says, than the regulation implemented to govern it.

So what about plant-based sausages or ham? What’s in them? Should that term even be allowed? And how do you know whether it’s progressing that new year’s resolution?

In simple terms, you probably don’t. At least until industry stops treating consumers as fools and actively offers up-to-date labels that can be read without needing binoculars. In a world where so much money is spent on health and fighting disease, food labelling shouldn’t require government regulation. Just a dose of low-cal decency.