Food labels often provide a lot of useful information but they can be a little hard to decipher at times.
This article will explain the main points to consider about food labelling next time you’re shopping and one or two pitfalls to watch out for.
The aim of food labels is to inform and guide you in the food choices you make. Among other things, they show what each food contains, how fresh it is and how to prepare it. The labels are also there to help you eat more healthily.
Since the 1980s, obesity has trebled in England and most people are now either overweight or obese. Obesity is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer and diabetes. Signposting potentially unhealthy ingredients in food, such as salt, sugar and saturated fat, can help you to make healthier choices.
Food labelling is strictly governed by law. It's illegal for labels to carry false information or make misleading claims. For example, only yoghurts that contain strawberries can be called strawberry yoghurt. Otherwise they must be labelled as strawberry-flavour yoghurt.
Food manufacturers and retailers are legally obliged to put certain information on food labels to protect you and help you understand what is in the food you’re buying. This information includes the following.
Food manufacturers don’t yet legally have to show nutritional information on food labels, unless the food makes a nutritional claim such as ‘low-fat’ (although this may not necessarily be a healthy option as it may contain lots of sugar or salt, so read the label carefully). However, many manufacturers provide a breakdown of how much energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates, fat, fibre and salt (sodium) each food contains, which can help you shop more healthily. There are two main systems for showing nutritional information – these are the traffic light system and the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system.
This system is recommended by the Food Standards Agency. It uses the colours red, amber and green to show how much sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat a food contains, along with the number of grams of each in one serving.
Green, amber and red indicate low, medium and high amounts respectively so that you can see at a glance how healthy a food is. The idea is to choose more items with green lights and fewer with red lights.
This alternative food labelling system was developed independently by a group of large food retailers. GDAs tell you how much sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat you can have in one day. Labels that use this system show how many grams of each of these things there are in a portion of food, but they aren’t colour-coded.
This system also tells you what percentage of your GDA for sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat the food contains. For example, the label below shows that this food contains 6.3g of sugar. The GDA for sugar for the average UK woman is 90g, so this particular food will provide seven percent of her recommended GDA. Often, the packaging will show GDA values for adult men and women – childhood GDA values are used on products designed specifically for children.
Here are some points to consider when you’re shopping for food.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2012.
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