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Food labelling

Food labels can provide a lot of useful information but at times they can be a little hard to make sense of. It's important to get to grips with them because they can help you make healthier choices about the food you choose to eat.

Here we guide you through some of the key things to look out for.

An image showing a food label

Details

  • Food labelling and the law Food labelling and the law

    Food labelling is strictly governed by European law. Food manufacturers and retailers are legally obliged to put certain information on food labels. Here’s a list of what must be on a label.

    • A list of ingredients, starting with the one there's most of.
    • The weight or volume of the product.
    • The name of the food – including a description for brand names. If a food has been processed, this must be stated on the label (for example, ‘smoked salmon’).
    • Storage instructions telling you the best way to keep the food so it doesn’t go off.
    • A use-by date so you know how long you can safely keep the foods in the recommended storage conditions. Stick to the use-by date so you don’t get food poisoning. This is different from a best-before date. After this date, the food may lose some of its flavour or texture so it’s no longer at its ‘best’, but it unlikely to make you ill.
    • Clear instructions on how to prepare and cook the food.
    • The manufacturer's name and address so you can find out more about the product.
    • The place of origin so you can clearly see where the food has come from. It would be misleading not to show it – for example, a Greek-style yoghurt made in France..
    • Any genetically modified (GM) ingredients. This doesn't apply to meat, milk or eggs that come from animals that have been fed with GM products.

    Safety information

    Food labels must also list any key information that could affect the safety of the food for you, for example:

    • if the food contains an ingredient that people are allergic to (this law applies to a list of known allergens)
    • if the food contains ingredients that are harmful in some people (a high amount of caffeine is unsuitable for some people)
    • the lot or batch number to identify batches of food if they have to be recalled (a date mark is sometimes used)
  • Nutritional information Nutritional information

    Food manufacturers aren’t yet legally required to show nutritional information on food labels, unless the food makes a health claim such as ‘low-fat’. However, the law is changing and most pre-packed food soon will need to have this information on display. If manufacturers choose to display nutritional values now, they must follow the format that will soon become law.

    Nutritional information labels show how much energy – in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) – is in a product. They also list the amount (in grams) of things like:

    • fat 
    • saturated fat 
    • carbohydrates 
    • sugars 
    • fibre 
    • protein 
    • salt

    This information is usually put in a table on the back of the food. It can be really useful to help you shop more healthily.

    Nutritional information can also be displayed on the front of food packaging so you can immediately see how healthy it is. In the UK, the traffic light system is common.

    Traffic light system

    An image showing a food label

    The traffic light colours show how much energy, fat, saturated fat (saturates), sugar and salt a food contains, and the grams of each in one serving. You can see at a glance how healthy a food is: 

    • green = low amount in the food 
    • amber = medium amount in the food 
    • red = high amount in the food

    The idea is to choose more items with green lights and fewer with red lights.

    The label also shows the percentage of your reference intake (RI) a portion provides. This is usually the value for an average adult (unless it's a product for children).

    Guideline daily amounts (GDA) system

    This alternative food labelling system was developed independently by a group of large food retailers. It's now being phased out in favour of the traffic light system, but you might still see it on some food packaging.

    GDAs are now known as reference intakes (RIs) and are the same as those used as part of the traffic light system. But they aren’t colour-coded. They tell you how much sugar, fat and saturated fat, and salt is in the product and what proportion this is of your guideline daily amount (reference intake).

  • Bupa Health Assessments

    Through a series of tests, measures and checks, we can build a picture of where your current health is and where it might be heading. Find out more.

  • Claims about nutrition Claims about nutrition

    If foods make health claims, they need to meet the legal criteria for those claims.

    Fat free

    To make this claim, the product has to contain no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml of product.

    Low fat, light or lite

    A solid food claiming to be low fat, light or lite, can't contain more than 3g of fat per 100g. A liquid food making this claim can’t contain more than 1.5g of fat per 100ml.

    Low sugar

    Low-sugar foods can’t contain more than 5g of sugars per 100g (if solid) or 2.5g of sugars per 100ml (if liquid).

    No added sugar

    This means the product doesn't contain any added monosaccharides or disaccharides (see below), or any other food used for its sweetening properties. If sugars naturally occur in the food, the label should also say, ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’.

    Low salt (sodium)

    A food claiming to be low in salt mustn’t contain more than 0.3g of salt per 100g (if solid) or per 100ml (if liquid).

    Different words for sugar

    It can be tricky sometimes to find sugar on food labels, particularly if food manufactures use scientific names for the various types of sugar. Names to look out for include:

    • dextrose 
    • fructose 
    • glucose 
    • maltose 
    • sucrose 
    • monosaccharide 
    • disaccharide 
    • honey 
    • molasses 
    • syrups (glucose, fructose, corn and maple, for example)
  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Looking at labels. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published 3 December 2014
    • Food labelling and packaging. Gov.UK. www.gov.uk, published 15 December 2014
    • A reference to food composition and labelling legislation. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, published March 2014
    • Food standards: labelling, durability and composition. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. www.gov.uk, published 9 April 2013
    • GM labelling. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, published 30 January 2013
    • Guide to creating a front of pack (FOP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published 19 June 2013
    • Technical guidance on nutrition labelling. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published 19 June 2013
    • Information on food labelling for healthcare professionals. IGD. www.igd.com, accessed 1 May 2015
    • Regulation (EC) no. 1924/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 December 2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods. European Union. www.eur-lex.europa.eu, published 20 December 2006
    • Sugar. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
    • Cholesterol. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
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    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, June 2015.

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