Food Labelling

This is a general guide to explain food labelling, an attempt to simplify the jargon and dispel some confusion. The information presented is based on European guidelines and law. As such it may not represent food labelling where you live. For specific local information, check your national guidelines (some useful links are below).

Food labels tell us several things about the contents of the products we are eating.

  1. Food Allergens – ingredients that are often allergens must be identified on the label.
  2. Nutrient Content – the quantity of the major nutrients; fats, carbohydrate, protein, salt, fibre and calories are listed per 100gm (and per serving size).
  3. Ingredients List – the ingredients are listed in order of quantity by weight.
  4. Dietary claims – when the producer makes claims about the food, eg ‘Low Fat’, ‘Free From’, he must provide information to support this claim.

Food labels can be confusing, to avoid misunderstanding ensure you read them thoroughly.

1. Food Allergens

A food allergy is an autoimmune response to a food. In the UK 14 known food allergens are identified on pre-packaged food. This means that if a product contains any of these 14 ingredients it must be stated. The 14 are: cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame, lupin and sulphur dioxide (at levels above 10mg/kg, or 10 mg/litre, expressed as SO2).

Alcohol as an ingredient must also be identified.

Some products claim that allergens are not in their product and are labelled as ‘Free From’. This term ‘Free From’ is specific for that particular ingredient only, not all food allergens. For example, a ‘Lactose Free’ product contains no lactose (milk sugar) but it may contain milk protein, and a ‘Gluten Free’ product may contain soya.

2. Nutrient Content

The nutrition content provides the weight of fats, carbohydrates, protein, dietary fibre and salt; and the calories per 100 gm; and, often, calories per average serve.

Typical values 100 gm contains Each slice (typically 44 gm) % RI* RI for an average adult
Energy 985 kj
235 kcal
435 kj
105 kcal
5% 8400 kj
2000 kcal
Fat 1.5 gm 0.7 gm 1% 70 gm
  as saturated 0.3 gm 0.1 gm 1% 20 gm
Carbohydrate 45.5 gm 20.0 gm
  as sugars 3.8 gm 1.7 gm 2% 90 gm
Fibre 2.8 gm 1.2 gm
Protein 7.7 gm 3.4 gm
Salt 1.0 gm 0.4 gm 7% 6 gm

RI* – This information refers to the recommended intake of an average adult.

What is high and low in a nutrient? Below is a guide to help you understand the nutrient content labels*.

Total Fat:

High: more than 17.5 gm of fat per 100 gm
Low: 3 gm of fat or less per 100 gm

Saturated Fat:

High: more than 5 gm of saturated fat per 100 gm
Low: 1.5 gm of saturated fat or less per 100 gm

More information on types of fat (eg saturated, cholesterol and trans fat content) is useful and is available in the ingredient list


High: more than 22.5 gm of total sugars per 100 gm
Low: 5 gm of total sugars or less per 100 gm
(more details of carbohydrates and types of sugar is available on the ingredient list)


High: more than 1.5 gm of salt per 100 gm (or 0.6 gm sodium)
Low: 0.3 gm of salt or less per 100 gm (or 0.1 gm sodium)


3. Ingredient List (including Food Additives)

The ingredient list is the contents listed in order of weight, the heaviest ingredient being first. This information can be used to assess the suitability of a food when read in conjunction with allergen and nutrient information.

Food additives are included in the ingredients list.
Do not be misled into thinking all additives are bad. Some have been used for hundreds of years and help maintain food quality. A good practice when trying to minimise additive intake is “if in doubt, go without”.
Fresh foods do not list additives (not possible really). However, additives may be used in food production and storage, even organic. Unfortunately, getting detailed information can be difficult unless you are shopping at a farmer’s market.

The additives permitted in food vary from country to country. For a guide on the uses of additives (emulsifiers, glazing agents etc):

For a guidelines on National regulatory authorities:

Within the European Union (and Switzerland, Arab Gulf States, Australia and New Zealand) the International Numbering System prefix “E” (Europe) identifies the food additives used:

E100-E199 (colours)
E200-E299 (preservatives)
E300-E399 (antioxidants, acidity regulators)
E400-E499 (thickeners, stabilizers, emulsifiers)
E500-E599 (acidity regulators, anti-caking agents)
E600-E699 (flavour enhancers)
E700-E799 (antibiotics)
E900-E999 (glazing agents and sweetners)
E1000-E1599 (additional chemicals)

A more detailed list of European (E) additives:

UK: the FSA (Food Standards Agency) has authority for food policy and labelling:

USA: the USA Food and Drug administration regulates food additives:

4. Dietary Claims

Below are some of the claims and indications used on food packaging.

“Light” or “Lite”
These foods must be a minimum of 30% lower in calories or fat than the standard product. Compare food labels to see if the difference is significant. Often the difference is only a gram or two, so not worth the loss in flavour.

“Low fat”
These foods contain no more than 3gm fat per 100 gm or 1.5 gm fat per 100 ml (1.8 gm /100ml for semi-skimmed milk).

“No Added Sugar”
No sugar or sweetener is added to these products, although they may have a high sugar content from natural sugar (fruit or milk).

“Use By”
Use By is added to foods with a short shelf-life where there is a potential health risk if used after the indicated date.

“Best Before”
Best Before dates are about food quality. If the food has been stored as instructed, it should not be harmful after the Best Before date although it may lose flavour and texture. Eggs may be used after best Before Date if they are cooked thoroughly.

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