Food labelling

Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due April 2023

Food labels tell you useful things such as the amount of salt, fat and added sugars the product contains and how many calories it has. Knowing what to look for on a nutrition label can help you to make healthier food choices. Here’s a guide to some of the key things to look out for.

Woman in shop look at the label on some cheese

Food labelling and the law

Food labels must be clear and easy to read. The information on them is strictly governed by European law. Food labelling laws mean that food manufacturers and retailers are legally obliged to put the following information on their labels.

  • A list of ingredients, starting off with the one that the product contains the most of.
  • The weight or volume of the product.
  • The name of the food – including a description for brand names.
  • Storage instructions telling you the best way to keep the food so it doesn’t go off.
  • A use-by date or best-before date. Use-by dates show you how long you can safely keep the food if you store it according to the instructions on the label. Stick to the use-by date so your food is safe to eat and you don’t get food poisoning. The best-before date is about the quality of the food, not safety. 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 could be misleading not to show this – 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.
  • The alcohol strength if a drink contains more than 1.2% alcohol.
  • Nutrition information if nutritional claims are made. See our section: Nutrition and health claims for further details.

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Safety information

Food labels must also list any key information that could affect the safety of the food. This includes:

  • if the food contains an ingredient that some people are allergic or intolerant to (this law applies to a list of known allergens) – see our section: Allergy labelling
  • if the food contains ingredients that may be harmful to some people (such as lots of caffeine)
  • the lot or batch number to identify batches of food if they have to be recalled (a date mark is sometimes used instead)

Nutritional information

Most pre-packed foods in the UK must show nutritional information on their label. If manufacturers want to make a health or nutrition claim, they have to follow certain rules – see our section: Nutrition and health claims.

How do I read a food label?

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

This information is given per 100g or 100ml of the product. It may also be shown per portion. Some labels also show the amount of:

The nutritional information is usually in the form of a table on the label on the back of the food. It can be really useful to help you shop more healthily and compare some of the products you usually buy. This may help you to control your portion sizes.

You may find some nutritional information on the front of the food packaging, so you can see straight away whether or not the product is healthy. In the UK, the labels use the traffic light system to show this information clearly.

Traffic light system

An image showing a food label 

The traffic light food labelling system helps you see whether a food or drink is healthy just by glancing at the colours on the label. The colours are:

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

The idea is to choose more foods with green colours on the label and fewer foods with red colours on the label.

  • If there are mainly green colours on the label, this shows you that the food is likely to be a healthy one.
  • If there are lots of red colours on the label, the food is likely to be unhealthy. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat this food at all, but you shouldn’t eat lots of it.
  • Amber colours mean the food isn’t very high or very low in certain nutrients and you can eat it most of the time.

The traffic light system shows you how much energy, fat, saturated fat (saturates), sugar and salt is in the food. It shows how many grams of each of these nutrients are in one serving. The label also shows how much of your reference intake (RI) each portion provides, as a percentage. The RI is usually the value for an average adult female (unless it's a food for children).

Fat-free claims

Fats are an essential part of your diet. But eating too much fat or too much of certain types of fat can be unhealthy.

If a product is described as fat free, it has to contain no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml of the 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.

Saturated fats are considered to be less healthy than unsaturated fats. If you eat too much saturated fat, this may increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood. High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease. Eating too many trans fats may also increase your risk of heart disease.

If a product claims to contain reduced saturated fat, this gives you an idea about how much saturated fat and trans fats it contains. To be described as having reduced saturated fat, a product must contain at least 30 per cent less than the full-fat version. And the amount of trans fats in the product must be equal to or less than the trans fats in the full-fat version.

Low-sugar claims

Having some sugar in your diet, especially from natural sources such as fruit and vegetables, is generally good for you. But consuming high-sugar processed foods or drinks regularly can mean you put weight on and can also be bad for your teeth. Some research suggests that having too much sugar in the form of sugary drinks is associated with increasing the risk of having type 2 diabetes.

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

A product claiming it has no added sugar mustn’t contain any sugar used as a sweetener. If sugars naturally occur in the food, the label should also say ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’.

Different words for sugar

It can sometimes be tricky to find sugar on food labels, especially if the manufacturer uses scientific names for the various types of sugar instead. Names to look out for include:

  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • maltose
  • sucrose
  • monosaccharide
  • disaccharide
  • honey
  • molasses
  • syrups (such as treacle, corn and maple syrups)
  • fruit juice concentrates

Low-salt claims

Some salt is good for you, but too much salt may increase your blood pressure and cause other health problems. Many people have too much salt in their diet, so cutting down and avoiding added salt can be good for your health. There are lots of other ways to add flavour to your food.

A food claiming to be low in salt mustn’t contain more than 0.12g of sodium per 100g or 100ml of product. This is the same as 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.

Fibre claims

Fibre is good for your digestive system and your general health. Adults should aim to eat 30g of fibre a day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

If a food claims to be high in fibre, it must contain at least 6g of fibre per 100g of food. Or, it has to contain at least 3g of fibre for every 100 calories it contains.

Allergy labelling

Food manufacturers are legally obliged to show clearly if a food contains any of the 14 main ingredients that can cause an allergy or intolerance. They should show this on the label by highlighting the food in the ingredients list – in bold, italics, capital letters, underlining or another colour. This means that the allergenic ingredients are easy to see.

The 14 main ingredients that could cause an allergy or intolerance are:

  • peanuts
  • tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and walnuts)
  • fish
  • crustaceans (such as prawns, crab and lobster)
  • molluscs (such as squid, mussels and snails)
  • eggs
  • milk (including lactose)
  • sesame seeds
  • lupin
  • soya beans
  • cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, rye, barley and oats)
  • celery and celeriac
  • mustard
  • sulfur dioxide and sulfites if they are over 10mg per kg or litre of the product

Nutrition and health claims

Manufacturers have to follow certain rules if they want to make any nutrition or health claims for their product. They can’t say or suggest that any product can treat, prevent or cure any health problem. They can only make nutrition and health claims if these are backed by approved medical research and fit in with specific guidelines.

  • A nutrition claim includes that a product is ‘low fat’ or ‘low in salt’.
  • A health claim includes saying that ‘calcium can keep your bones healthy’.

There are different rules for food supplements, fortified foods (containing extra vitamins and minerals) and foods for a specific use (such as baby milks).

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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Looking at nutrition labels. British Nutrition Foundation., published April 2019
    • Food labelling and packaging. Food Standards Agency., accessed March 2020
    • Labelling food – pre-packed. Food Standards Agency., updated January 2018
    • Best before and use by dates. Food Standards Agency., updated January 2018
    • Genetically modified foods. Food Standards Agency., last updated January 2018
    • Helping you eat well. British Nutrition Foundation., last reviewed December 2016
    • Fat facts: food fact sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians., published January 2018
    • Nutrition Claims. European Commission., accessed March 2020
    • Fats explained. British Nutrition Foundation., accessed March 2020
    • Sugar: food fact sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians., accessed March 2020
    • Salt: food fact sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians., accessed March 2020
    • Frequently Asked Questions. Action on Salt., accessed March 2020
    • Fibre: food fact sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians., accessed March 2020
    • Food labelling: nutrition information: food factsheet. The Association of UK Dietitians., published August 2018
    • Wang M, Yu M, Fang l, et al. Association between sugar-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes: a meta analysis. J Diabetes Investig 2015; 6(3):360–66. doi: 10.1111/jdi.12309
    • Healthy Living. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online., published online April 2014
  • Reviewed by Victoria Goldman, Freelance Health Editor and Natalie Heaton, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2020
    Expert reviewer, Paul McCardle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due April 2023