Understanding food labels

Carefully reading the labels on food packets can help you pick the healthier option between similar products. They can also help you to think about the ingredients in different foods. But sometimes things are not quite as they seem.

It is important to eat well during pregnancy. This means trying to eat a variety of foods from the different food groups each day. 

The energy that food gives us when we eat it is measured in calories. Most food packaging tells you:

  • how much energy (calories) a food gives per portion, or for 100g
  • the amount of fat, saturates (saturated fat), carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, included in the food
  • the ingredients in the food
  • whether the food contains things that could set off allergic reactions
  • the date by which you should eat it. 

The front of packaging

Most food packaging that you find in supermarkets now has a label on the front. These make it easier to see what is in a food product. You can also compare it quickly with other similar products. 

Labels should include the amounts of the following (per portion of food):

  • energy (calories)
  • fat
  • saturated fat
  • sugars
  • salt.

There are percentages alongside these amounts. These are known as ‘Reference Intakes’. These percentages are based on the approximate amount of nutrients and energy you need per day for a healthy diet. For each nutrient (like sugar or salt), it will show how much of the maximum amount you should eat per day is taken up by a single portion. 

For example, it could say that one portion of your cereal has 20% of the amount of sugar you should eat in a day. Be aware that your portions might be bigger than the amount listed on the pack as a portion.

Infographic that shows the breakdown of a food label including green, red and orange colour coding to signal foods that are high and low in certain nutrients.

Food labels may also use red, amber and green colours to give you an idea of how healthy the food is. This lets you see easily whether the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt:

  • red means high
  • amber means medium
  • green means low

So, in short, the more green you see, the healthier the food is.

We have more information about how to eat well during pregnancy.


The 2 main types of fat found in food are saturated and unsaturated. The nutrition label tells you how much total fat is in the food and it also shows you what portion of that is saturated.

Image of infographic that shows amount of fat in a food product, both amounts 0.7g and 0.1g are in green.

Everyone should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat (red food labelling). But it is also important to be aware that foods that are high in fat are usually also high in energy (calories). Eating too many calories over time can cause weight gain and maintaining a healthy weight is important in pregnancy. Some women are very worried about weight gain during pregnancy, but it’s important not to put pressure on yourself. The best thing you can do for you and your baby’s health is trying to eat a healthy, balanced diet as much as possible. 


Eating lots of foods that are high in saturated fat can raise your cholesterol which increases your risk of heart disease. So cutting down on foods that are high in saturated fat is important to a healthy diet. 


Sugars are naturally in foods like fruit and milk. But these are not the types of sugar we need to cut down on. It is the sugars that are in treats like sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates and sugary drinks that we need to be careful of. Having these in large amounts increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay. To check how much sugar is in the food you buy, try using the NHS Food Scanner app


It is important to limit how much salt we have. Having too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of health problems like heart disease and stroke.

Be aware of health claims on packaging 

Food packaging often makes health claims for the food. It might say, it ‘helps maintain a healthy heart’, or ‘helps aid digestion’.

Food companies are only allowed to make claims such as ‘healthy’ or ‘good for you’ if there is evidence for this. This means that they must tell you how and why the food is ‘healthy’. 

The words ‘light’, ‘low fat’ or ‘no added sugar’ can be misleading. A food may to be ‘lower fat’, but they often contain more of another unhealthy ingredient, such as sugar.

Light (or lite) and reduced

Sometimes labels say a food is ‘light’ or ‘lite’ or it claims to be ‘reduced’ in something like fat or sugar. This means it must be at least 30 percent lower than the standard version. The label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much – for example, ‘Light – 30% less fat’.

You may be surprised at how little difference there is between foods that say they’re ‘light’ or ‘reduced’ and those that do not. A ‘light’ version of one brand of crisps may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand.

We found a ‘reduced fat’ peanut butter from a well-known supermarket that had 144% more sugar than the ‘normal’ peanut butter. 

Low fat

A food can claim to be low in fat only if it contains no more than:

  • 3g of fat per 100g for solids, or 
  • 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids (semi-skimmed milk has 1.8g of fat per 100ml).


‘No added sugar’ means that no sugar has been added as an extra ingredient. The food might naturally have sugar in it, such as dried fruit.

Check out labels on ready meals

If you are buying a ready meal, do not choose it based on the picture. The picture may be just a serving suggestion. You might be surprised how little there is of some of the foods in the picture. Read the label so you know what is included in the meal. The label should tell you how much of the main ingredient is in the meal. The ingredients are listed in order of how much of each is in the pack.  

Use by dates 

‘Use by’ dates are sometimes on labels and are often printed directly on the packaging. They are often included on food products that goes off quickly, like meat products and ready-prepared salads.

It the food is past its ‘use by’ date, do not eat it, even if it looks and smells okay. Eating it after this date could put your health at risk.

Always follow additional instructions such as "keep in a refrigerator". Otherwise the ‘use by’ date is not valid, and you may get food poisoning .
Some foods, such as frozen, tinned or dried foods, have a ‘best before date’. After this date the food is not necessarily harmful but will not be as nice to eat. However, we would advise trying to use foods before their ‘best before’ date to be sure. 

Video last reviewed: March 2021 Next review due: March 2024

European Commission [accessed 14/10/20] Nutrition claims: http://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/nutrition_claims_en

FSA (2016) Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets: http://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/nutrition_claims_en

NHS Choices [accessed 14/10/2020] Food labels: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-read-food-labels/ 

NHS Choices [accessed 14/10/2020] Food labeling terms: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-labelling-terms/ 

NHS Choices news [accessed 28/10/20] New colour-coded food nutrition labels launched: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/06june/pages/universal-colour-coded-food-nutrition-labels.aspx

Tesco [accessed 22/6/2020] Tesco reduced fat peanut butter 340g and Tesco Smooth peanut butter http://www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=251624367 and https://www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=264769626

Review dates
Reviewed: 05 March 2021
Next review: 05 March 2024

This content is currently being reviewed by our team. Updated information will be coming soon.