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Understanding food labels

food labels

If you buy pre-packed foods and drinks, understanding the information on food labels can help you make healthier choices that will help you and your family to eat well.

Labels on foods and drinks give essential information, such as:

  • the ingredients
  • the nutrients (such as fats, calories, fibre)
  • how much they contribute to what an average adult needs each day.

On the back

Information on the back of a pack is compulsory and gives details about the ingredients, nutritional composition, known allergens, ‘best before’ or ‘use-by’ dates and the weight of the product. The ingredients are listed in order, starting with the highest-quantity ingredient first, down to the lowest- quantity ingredient last. So, if you find sugar at the top of the list, the food is likely to be high in sugar.

On the front

The traffic light system for ‘front of pack’ labelling, while still voluntary, has been around for a while now and is an easy way to check at a glance how healthy a food is. The labels show how many calories are in the food or drink and are also colour coded to show whether the food is low (green), medium (amber) or high (red) in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. The information on the front of the pack also tells you how the portion of the food contributes to the Reference Intake (RI) of an adult. Try to choose foods with more greens and ambers and fewer reds. And, if the traffic lights aren’t available, check the ‘per 100g’ column on the ‘back of pack’ nutritional label.

Why aren’t carbs included on the ‘front of pack’ label?

The ‘front of pack’ labelling is voluntary and only an addition to the ‘back of pack’ labelling, which is mandatory. We and other organisations campaigned for supermarkets and food manufacturers to have clear consistent information on the front of pre-packaged food. The objective of this campaign was to make it easier for people to make informed choices based on how healthy a particular food is.

The information included in the 'front of pack' labelling is meant to help people, at a glance, quickly decide which foods are healthier based on the amounts of fats, sugars and salt. These nutrients are colour coded based on EU set criteria for low, medium and high amounts. Carbohydrates are not included in the 'front of pack' information partly because there is no set criteria for determining what the amount of low, medium or high carb is in a particular food.

The 'back of pack' labelling provides detailed information on other nutrients including carbohydrates. These are expressed in per 100g so that people can easily compare two similar products. In addition to the per 100g info, many products also provide nutrient contents in per portions so this can be useful for people who want to know the amount of carb they are eating.

Portion size

A manufacturer’s definition of a portion or serving size may be different from yours. In general, the portion sizes given are suitable for adults over the age of 18. Younger children and teenagers may need different amounts. Even with healthier choices, if you eat large portions you may end up consuming more calories, fats and sugars than you need. How much you eat of any food influences your nutrient and calorie intake, so think about the portion size when you’re buying food and don’t always eat the amount the manufacturer recommends if you think you need less.

What else?

Many of the claims made on food packaging, such as fat free or low fat, can be confusing. Here’s the difference:

  • Fat free: has to have no fat, but check the ingredients list for added sugar, which are often used to replace the fat.
  • Sugar free: check the ingredients list for fats which may replace the sugar.
  • Low fat: the product has 3g or less of fat per 100g.
  • Low sugar: has less than 5g of sugar per 100g.
  • No added sugar: although no sugar is added, there may be naturally occurring sugar in the food.
  • Reduced fat or sugar: contains at least 30 per cent less fat or sugar than the standard version of the product. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy and in some cases the lite version of, say, crisps, can contain the same amount of calories and fat as the standard version of another brand.

And if there’s no nutritional info?

Not everything you buy will have nutritional information, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the pack doesn’t give you clues to help you make a healthier choice. It’s important to check the ingredients list or back of pack label so you can compare two products like for like per 100g.

Six ways to be label savvy

Follow these tips to become expert at understanding labels in minutes:

  1. With traffic light labels, go for green, occasionally amber, and red only as a treat.
  2. Reference intake (RI) percentages are given per portion, and indicate how much the portion contributes to the amount of calories, fat, sugars and salt an average adult should have each day. Check how much of the pack counts as a portion to avoid consuming more calories, fat and sugar than you need.
  3. All carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels. Labels on the front don’t include the amount of carbs, so check the label on the pack for the total carbohydrate, which includes carbohydrates from starchy food as well as sugars.
  4. The figures for sugars on traffic lights are for total sugars, which doesn’t tell you how much of the sugar comes from natural sources, such as fructose and how much is added, such as sucrose or glucose. Check the ingredients list – if syrup, invert syrup, cane sugar, molasses or anything ending in ‘ose’ is within the first three ingredients, this suggests the food contains more added sugar. Choose an alternative if possible, or be mindful of the portion you eat. 
  5. Check the fibre content on the back of pack label. If you’re choosing between two similar products and one has more fibre, choose that, as we should all be consuming more fibre as part of our daily diet.
  6. Check the manufacturer’s definition of a portion size. It may differ from yours and be smaller than you would like! However, if you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, it’s a good idea to reduce your portions.


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