Food labelling and the law
What’s required to be on a food label is strictly governed by European law. Food manufacturers and retailers are legally obliged to put the following information on food labels.
- 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 food in the recommended storage conditions. Stick to the use-by date so you don’t get food poisoning – for more information, see our topic: Food safety. The best-before date is different. After this date, the food may lose some flavour or texture so it’s no longer at its ‘best’, but it’s unlikely to make you ill.
- Clear instructions on how to prepare and cook the food if necessary.
- 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.
Food labels must also list any key information that could affect the safety of the food, for example:
- if the food contains an ingredient that some people are allergic to (this law applies to a list of known allergens)
- if the food contains ingredients that are harmful in some people (for example, a high level 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)
Labels for most pre-packed foods in the UK must show nutritional information. Food manufacturers are also required to show nutritional information on food labels for foods that make a health claim such as ‘low-fat’.
How do I read a food label?
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:
This information is usually put in a table on the label 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 used to show this information.
Traffic light system
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).
If foods make health claims, they need to meet the legal criteria for those claims.
In order to claim that a product is fat-free, it has to contain no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml of product.
Low-fat, light or lite claims
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.To claim a product is reduced saturated fat, the amount of saturated fatty acids and of trans-fatty acids in the product must be at least 30% less than in a similar product (ie the full fat version). And the trans-fatty acids content in the product must be equal to or less than in a similar product.
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 claims
To claim there is no added sugar, the product mustn’t contain any added monosaccharides or disaccharides or any other food used for its sweetening properties. We explain the different words for sugar below. If sugars naturally occur in the food, the label should also say, ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’.
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:
- syrups (for example, treacle, corn and maple syrups)
- fruit juice concentrates
A food claiming to be low in salt mustn’t contain more than 0.12g of sodium per 100g or 100ml of product. This equates to 0.3g of salt per 100g or 100ml of product. Very low-salt products can’t contain more than 0.04g of sodium (0.1g salt) per 100g or 100ml of product.
- Looking at labels. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published December 2016
- Food labelling and packaging. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, accessed 20 October 2017
- A reference to food composition and labelling legislation. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, published March 2017
- Food standards: labelling, durability and composition. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. www.gov.uk, published 11 June 2015
- GM labelling. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 30 January 2013
- Food information to consumers – legislation. European Commission. ec.europa.eu, accessed 20 October 2017
- Technical guidance on nutrition labelling. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published March 2017
- Guide to creating a front of pack (FOP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets. Department of Health. www.food.gov.uk, updated November 2016
- Nutrition claims. European Commission. ec.europa.eu, last update 21 November 2017
- Sugar. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published March 2017
We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, November 2017
Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due November 2020
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