The voluntary Percent Daily Intake scheme, which has been backed by firms like Kraft, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg and Coca-Cola, is designed to help consumers understand how much of their daily energy requirements will be met by a specific food or beverage.
The food makers, represented by the Australian Food and Grocery Council, say the scheme is a 'major initiative…that will make an important contribution towards addressing obesity'.
But the initiative has come under fire from charities like the National Heart Foundation for focussing too closely on energy content.
"Under the percent DI label, a can of cola would display a lower energy value than a carton of reduced-fat chocolate milk, despite milk being the clear winner nutritionally," said chief executive Dr Lyn Roberts. "Energy content alone is not the basis for a healthier food choice."
Similarly, energy levels of white bread are the same as those of wholegrain, which may lead people to go for white bread instead of the healthier wholegrain bread.
The group said that while it supported industry's investment in making food labels clearer, "improving the foods themselves is the best way to improve the health of Australians so nothing should take the pressure off food companies producing healthier foods."
The food makers' move to a voluntarily labeling scheme is seen as a preemptive strike against a mandatory one but it has gained the approval of the federal Minister for Agriculture, Peter McGauran, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Christopher Pyne.
Food makers say it is a better system than the colour-coded, or 'traffic light' labelling currently being tested in the UK, which would discriminate against high-fat foods like cheese that provide other important nutrients.
"The industry is working to avoid the confusion that has occurred in the UK and Europe, as a result of consumers being confronted with as many as 28 different logos and formats," said Minister McGauran.
Food makers in Australia are under just as much pressure as their counterparts in Europe and the US as the country faces escalating obesity levels, particularly among children. The number of overweight or obese children has doubled since 1985, and now affects 23 per cent of all of those under the age of 16.
Last week also saw McDonald's Australia announce it would switch to a new cooking oil with only 1 per cent trans fat in a bid to reduce consumers' cholesterol levels.
The fast food chain has also introduced the percent daily intake labeling scheme on its products across Australia.
Meanwhile the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council has called on the Food Regulation Standing Committee to begin research on new forms of front-of-pack food labelling, including the 'traffic light' system.
The Heart Foundation says it is also conducting an independent analysis of the various labelling schemes used internationally and will test them with Australians.