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Deciphering Food Labels

Food labelling is there to help us stay informed about what we are consuming, but with all that information on one packet, we can often find ourselves a bit confused and overwhelmed.


Serving sizes in the UK are not standardised, so it is important to eat what you feel is an appropriate portion, rather than what is suggested by the manufacturer. Serving sizes are normally based on data about how much people typically eat, not how much you should eat, and this data hasn’t been updated since 1993!


The traffic light system on the front-of-pack is not compulsory, so you may not find it on all products, but most major pre-packaged foods will provide this information. It’s a really useful way of quickly comparing the salt, sugar and fat content between products (but be sure to note whether the information is written per 100g or portion so you can compare like for like). The general idea is that you choose products that have more greens (low) and ambers (medium) and fewer reds (high).

However, the traffic light system falls short as it doesn’t tell you why the fat/salt/sugar is red or anything about the nutritional quality. This is when you need to do a bit of further digging and check the ingredients list. For example, if the fat content of a product is red, but the first ingredient on the list is something like nuts or avocado, then the fat content is likely coming from these natural sources and providing you with a dose of monounsaturated fat (the essential kind).


The back of the packet will give you a more in-depth nutritional breakdown of the product than the front. This is where you can find the number of calories, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre, protein and salt in either a ‘portion’ of the product or per 100g. You may also come across a column with % Reference Intakes (RIs). This column shows you what percentage of your reference intake is in a portion of the product. Reference intakes are guidelines about the maximum amount of calories and nutrients an adult should eat on average in a day – these are not targets!


This is where things can get a bit misleading and food companies try to seduce us with bold health related claims that more often than not, don’t really mean anything. For example, you’ll find the term ‘superfood’ is plastered on packaging, but it has no regulatory approval and no accepted definition.

There are two categories of claims found on packaging in the UK that are strictly regulated: nutrition claims and health claims. Nutrition claims imply a food has beneficial nutritional properties because of either the calories it provides or does not provide (or reduces) or the nutrients it contains or does not contain, e.g., ‘sugar-free’ or ‘source of fibre’. However, to make things even more complicated, you need to be wary of wording. For example, ‘reduced fat’ and ‘low fat’ mean completely different things. A product that can use a ‘low fat’ claim must have 3g or less fat per 100g, whereas a product claiming ‘reduced fat’ only has to have 25% less fat than the standard product (meaning it may still be high in fat). On the other hand, health claims are ones made about the relationship between the product and your health. For example, ‘shown to reduce blood cholesterol’ or ‘calcium is needed for the maintenance of normal bones’. Thankfully, health claims on labels are not allowed to say that a food can prevent or cure any disease, nor are they allowed to mention an amount of weight loss.

These claims aren’t something you need to know in depth and off by heart but it’s important to remember not to be fooled by clever marketing.


We’re often fed the idea that we shouldn’t consume things we can’t pronounce, but it’s important to know that the food industry has its own language when it comes to listing ingredients. This means more often than not simple ingredients are given pretty scary sounding names. For example, E100 is masquerading as curcumin (aka the bioactive compound in turmeric), ascorbic acid (E300), cholecalciferol, ergocalcipherol and tocopherols are all just the chemical names for vitamins– not so scary anymore! Next time you see something you can’t pronounce on a food label, take the opportunity to learn about it rather than avoiding it! Also, don’t feel the need to get hung up on checking the labels of everything you buy.


Food labelling is there to guide you to make healthy and informed choices about what you eat. Food labels do not tell you how hungry you are, how much will fill you up or what your body is asking for.

References and other useful resources:


Contribution by Sophie Gastman ANutr