Reading 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.

'No added sugar' label on squash bottle

Most food packaging tells you how much energy (calories)  a food gives per portion or for 100g. It also tells you how much of the different nutrients the food contains. It will also list the ingredients in the food, whether it contains things that could set off allergic reactions and the date by which you should eat it.

What’s in my food?

Most food packaging that you find in supermarkets now have a label on the front. Labels on the front of a pack mean that it's easier to see at a glance what is in a food product. You can also compare it quickly with other similar products.

food-labels

Labels should include the following information per portion of food:

  • the amount of energy (shown as kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), which are known as calories)
  • the amount of fat and saturated fat
  • the amount of sugar
  • the amount of salt.

These amounts will be shown as ‘Reference Intakes’ (they used to be called ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’). Alongside the amounts in the list above, food labels show how much one portion of this food would take from the maximum amount you should eat of a different nutrient in one day. 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, though, that your portions might be bigger than the amount listed on the pack as a portion.

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.

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’.

General claims, such as ‘healthy’ or ‘good for you’, are only allowed if they can be backed up. This means that they must tell you in what way the food is ‘healthy’.

The words ‘light’, ‘low fat’ or ‘no added sugar’ can be misleading. These promises have to be true – so a food has to be lower in fat if it says ‘low fat’ – but they often make up for this by increasing another unhealthy ingredient, such as sugar.

Light or lite

If the label says a food is ‘light’ or ‘lite’, it must be at least 30 percent lower in at least one thing, such as calories or fat, 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’ and those that don't. A ‘light’ version of one brand of crisps may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand.

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

‘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.

Look out for foods that say ‘reduced fat’

Sometimes you'll see the word 'light' on food packaging but what does this actually mean? To be 'light', a food must be at least 30% lower than usual in at least one thing, such as calories or fat. The label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much. For example, it might say: 'Light - 30% less fat', but it might have extra sugar added. We found a ‘reduced fat’ peanut butter from a well-known supermarket that had 144% more sugar than the ‘normal’ peanut butter.

Check out labels on ready meals

If you’re buying a ready meal, look out for ones that include vegetables. Don’t go by the picture, as this may be just a serving suggestion. Read the label so you know what’s really 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. You might be surprised how little there is of the most prominent item pictured on the packaging.

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Sources

NHS Choices [accessed 22 June 2017] Food labeling terms (Page last reviewed: 19/06/201) Next review due: 28/02/2018) http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/food-labelling-terms.aspx?

NHS Choices news [accessed 22 June 2017] New colour-coded food nutrition labels launched, published June 2013, no review date as classed as Health news http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/06june/pages/universal-colour-coded-food-nut...

FSA (2016) Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets, Food Standards Agency, London, England

John C et al. (2003) “Making Healthful Food Choices: The Influence of Health Claims and Nutrition Information on Consumers’ Evaluations of Packaged Food Products and Restaurant Menu Items.” Journal of Marketing 2003;67:19-34

Nestle M et al. (2010). “Front of package food labels: Public health or propaganda” JAMA 2010;303:771-772

European Commission [accessed June 2017] Nutrition claims. http://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/nutrition_cla... (Last update: 22/06/2017)

Tesco [accessed 22 June 2017] 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

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Last reviewed on June 27th, 2017. Next review date June 22nd, 2020.

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