The truth behind food labels

food label of a mushroom soup
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Understanding food labels

The food industry is under scrutiny because many food labels are not regulated by the government. Food companies and manufacturers use words like ‘reduced fat’ or ‘less fat’ and ‘less salt’ to make us think these products are healthy. These products are simply reduced or less than the original, and doesn’t really mean these are low in that ingredient. The fat or salt could still be more that the daily recommended intake and it could also contain high amounts of another ingredient that should be avoided.

Food labelling regulations

‘Vitamin enriched’ label diverts your attention from the protein, carbohydrate and fat amounts. The same issue lies in products labelled as ‘allnatural ingredients’, although it contains all natural ingredients, it does not mean that it is low in carbohydrates, fats or sugars. This means that due to these phrases you are tricked into thinking this product is healthy without noticing the macronutrient intake. 

Moreover, another regulation is that manufacturers must tell tell us about the kind of processing it underwent, like smoking or drying etc. For example, dried apricots. This way you know what is good and what is not. For instance, surely you’d like to know if the product has been deepfried or grilled right? This is a good thing to keep an eye on.

Furthermore, pictures on food labels must not mislead. For example, a yogurt that only has raspberry flavouring must not have a raspberry photo on the packaging but it can have a drawing of a raspberry. This is especially helpful when purchasing juice, you may sometimes get confused between ‘from concentrate’ or ‘not from concentrate’ etc. At least by looking at the photo you can identify what’s what. However, as good as this sounds we now have amazing technology which can make drawings look almost real which can make things complicated.

In addition, the name of the product must also not mislead. For example, when the name of the food contains the word ‘flavour’, the food does not have to contain any of that particular ingredient. Eg; ‘smoky bacon flavour crisps’ might only contain the flavouring. Whereas cheese and onion pasty must contain cheese and onion in it.  

Another thing to understand is that food labels must list all ingredients in descending order of weight, with dominant ingredient first. The list must also give you how much of the ingredient is within the product, normally displayed using a %. For example, % of tomatoes in a tomato soup. All allergens must be highlighted in bold print. 

Some more food labelling regulations..

Low Fat guidelines specify 1/3 of total caloric needs should come from fat so its person dependent if the food is actually low in fat. Some companies label food as ‘reduced fat, lower still, lite and 90% fat free’. By law, a product can only say it is ‘low fat’ if it contains less than 3g of fat per 100g of the product. Other terms ‘lower still’ or ‘90% fat free’ can still have high fat content. To say food is ‘light’ or ‘lite’ it must be at least 30% lower in calories derived from fat than standard products. 

Serving size is often unrealistically small. Clients need to check kcal for the serving that they are actually consuming. Eg. Cereals is a big one. Normally the serving size is displayed in 30-45 grams of product but an average adult might consume 80-100grams of the product. This means they will consume a lot more calories than they might be made to believe. 

What is the ‘use by date’?

 The ‘use by date’ is for highly perishable goods which would become a health risk if eaten after recommended date. 

What is the ‘best before’ date?

The ‘best before’ means exactly that. It would not be dangerous to eat food after this date, but it indicates that the food wouldn’t be at its best. 

Food Label examples

  • There is currently no label requirement to label food as halal or kosher or to give ingredient list on alcoholic drinks or levels of trans fat. Trans fats are the worst artificial fats which harm our health. 
  • Organic an organic product must be made of 95% organic ingredients and 5% may be made from non-organic foods 
  • No added sugar– by law, a food label must identify what the process the product has undergone during its manufacture. No added sugar means just that. But it could contain fruit high in sugars or sweetener may be used instead.  
  • Farm fresh– meaningless term with no legal definition and can mean whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean.  
  • Low fat no more than 3g of fat per 100g of product 
  • Beneficial for health cannot be on food labels unless there is a clear explanation as to why it is beneficial to health. Labels cannot claim to treat/cure any disease/medical conditions. 
  • Unsweetened– means no added sugar but a sweetener may have been used or the ingredients provide natural sugars. 
  • Fat free– 0.15g of fat per 100g of the product 
  • Free from alcohol– must contain no more than 0.05% alcohol. 
  • Reduced salt– should contain less than 0.5g of sodium per 100g of product 
An example of food label analysis

Food labelling traffic light system

Traffic light system is designed to help customers identify whether a serving of a food product is high (red) moderate (amber) and low (green) ; key nutrients like fat, saturates, sugars and salt. You can also see the grams of these in the suggested serving.  But is it helpful? Not necessarily. The traffic light system is great for quickly skimming though the packaging but the serving sizes shown on the traffic light system are normally quite small. On top of this, whether a serving size is high or low in that particular ingredient depends on your weight and height. For example, a serving size of 100g that contains 200 calories may be low for someone who is overweight but this serving size may be bigger for you. You’d need to know your daily calorie allowance to know if that serving size was actually low in those ingredients.


In conclusion, food labels certainly require more regulation as there seem to be loop holes allowing manufacturers and sellers to trick us. But what is considered to be low or high on food labels will be all dependent on your body composition. The amounts on food labels are shown on an average calorie intake, but we all know everybody is different. You could be a body builder eating 10,000 calories per day or you could be on a diet eating 1200 calories per day. Your intakes of ingredients will differ.

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