Food labelling terms

Food labels can help us choose a healthier diet and make sure our foods are safe to eat. Here is a guide to some of the most common food labelling terms.

Read on or use the links to go straight to the sections that interest you.

Food labels provide a wide range of information about foods. But understanding all of that information is important if we are to make use of it.

For example, if a food product is labelled "light" or "lite" or has "no added sugar" what does this mean?

There are rules that food manufacturers must follow to prevent false claims or misleading descriptions, and there are clear guidelines on what labels on packets can and can't show.

Below we explain some of the more common labelling terms.

Use by and best before

Use by

You will see "use by" dates on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads.

Don't use any food or drink after the end of the "use by" date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it after this date could put your health at risk.

For the "use by" date to be a valid guide, you must follow storage instructions such as "keep in a refrigerator". If you don't follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning.

Once a food with a "use by" date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions such as "eat within three days of opening".

But remember, if the "use by" is tomorrow, then you must use the food by the end of tomorrow, even if the label says "eat within a week of opening" and you have only opened the food today.

If a food can be frozen its life can be extended beyond the "use by" date. But make sure you follow any instructions on the pack, such as "cook from frozen" or "defrost thoroughly before use and use within 24 hours".

Best before

"Best before" dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.

"Best before" dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.

Eggs can be eaten after their "best before" date as long as they are cooked thoroughly until both yolk and white are solid, or if they are used in dishes where they will be fully cooked such as a cake.

Cooking eggs until both the white and yolk are solid will kill any bacteria, such as salmonella. People who are in "at-risk" groups should only eat eggs, or food containing eggs, that have been thoroughly cooked. These groups include:

  • babies and toddlers
  • elderly people
  • pregnant women
  • people who are already unwell

Every year in the UK we throw away 7.2m tonnes of food and drink, most of which could have been eaten. So think carefully before throwing away food past its "best before" date.

Remember, the "best before" date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as "store in a cool dry place" or "keep in the fridge once opened".

Display until and sell by

Date marks such as "display until" or "sell by" often appear near or next to the "best before" or "use by" date. These are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers.

The important dates for you to look for are the "use by" and "best before" dates.

Health claims

Food packaging often makes health claims for the food, such as, "helps maintain a healthy heart", or "helps aid digestion".

Since 2007, specific rules have been put in place to help prevent misleading claims. Any claims made about the nutritional and health benefits of a food must be based on science. Only claims that have been approved by the European Commission can be used on food packaging.

General claims about benefits to overall good health, such as "healthy" or "good for you", are only allowed if accompanied by an approved claim. This means that these claims must be backed up by an explanation of why the food is "healthy".

Labels are not allowed to claim that food can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition. These sorts of claims can only be made for licensed medicines.

Light or lite

To say that a food is "light" or "lite", it must be at least 30% lower in at least one typical value, such as calories or fat, than standard products.

The label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much, for example "light: 30% less fat".

To get the whole picture about a product and compare it properly with similar foods, you will need to take a close look at the nutrition label. The easiest way to compare products is to look at the information per 100g.

You may be surprised at how little difference there is between foods that carry claims and those that don't. A "light" or "lite" version of one brand of crisps may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand.

Those tempting biscuits that claim to be light on fat can have more calories than you think, so always check the label.

Low fat

A claim that a food is low in fat may only be made where the product contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids (1.8g of fat per 100ml for semi-skimmed milk).

No added sugar or unsweetened

"No added sugar" or "unsweetened" refer to sugar or sweeteners that are added as ingredients. They do not mean that the food contains no sugar.

The ingredients lists on food products with "no added sugar" and "unsweetened" labels will tell you what ingredients have been used, including what types of sweetener and sugar. You can often find information about how much sugar there is in the food in the nutrition label.

No added sugar

This usually means that the food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient.

A food that has "no added sugar" might still taste sweet and can still contain sugar.

Sugars occur naturally in food such as fruit and milk. But we don't need to cut down on these types of sugar: it is food containing added sugars that we should be cutting down on.

Just because a food contains "no added sugar", this does not necessarily mean it has a low sugar content. The food may contain ingredients that have a naturally high sugar content (such as fruit), or have added milk, which contains lactose, a type of sugar that occurs naturally in milk. 

Unsweetened

This usually means that no sugar or sweetener has been added to the food to make it taste sweet. This doesn't necessarily mean that the food will not contain naturally occurring sugars found in fruit or milk.

Ingredients

The ingredients in the food, including additives, are listed in descending order of weight at the time they were used to make the food. If flavourings are used, the label must say so. The ingredients list must also highlight any allergens (foods that some people are allergic to), such as eggs, nuts and soya where used as ingredients.

As well as this information, there will usually also be the manufacturer's name and address, a datemark, instructions for safe storage and the weight of the product.

Nutrition information

You often see nutrition labels on food packaging giving a breakdown of the nutritional content of the food.

Manufacturers are currently required by law to give this information if the product also makes a nutrition claim such as "low fat", or a health claim such as "calcium helps build strong bones", or if vitamins or minerals have been added to the product. Manufacturers often also give nutrition information voluntarily, and under new EU rules will be required to provide this information from December 2016, regardless of whether a nutrition or health claim has been made or vitamins or minerals have been added to the product.

When nutrition information is given on a label, as a minimum it must, under the new rules, show the amount of each of the following per 100g or 100ml of the food:

  • energy (in kJ and kcal)
  • fat (in g)
  • saturates (in g)
  • carbohydrate (in g)
  • sugars (in g)
  • protein (in g)
  • salt (in g)
  • plus the amount of any nutrient for which a claim has been made

Sometimes you will also see amounts per serving or per portion, but this must be in addition to the 100g or 100ml breakdown. Remember, the manufacturer's idea of what constitutes a "serving"' or a "portion" might not be the same as yours.

The common terms used in nutritional information are explained below.

Energy

This is the amount of energy that the food will give you when you eat it.

It is measured in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), usually referred to as calories. An average man needs around 10,500kJ (2,500kcal) a day to maintain his weight. For an average woman, the daily figure is around 8,400kJ (2,000kcal). 

Fat

There are two main types of fat found in food: saturated and unsaturated. As part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat. The nutrition label tells you how much total fat is contained in the food.

Eating too much fat can also make us more likely to put on weight because foods that are high in fat are high in energy (kJ/kcal) too. Being overweight raises our risk of serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as coronary heart disease.

Find out more about fat and how much we should eat as part of a healthy diet in Fat: the facts.

Saturates

Eating a diet that is high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in the blood. Having high cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. As part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat.

Most of us eat too much saturated fat. Reading nutrition labels can help you cut down on saturated fat.

Find out how you can cut down on saturated fat in your diet in Eat less saturated fat.

Carbohydrates

There are two types of carbohydrates that the body turns into energy: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are often listed on nutrition labels as "carbohydrates (of which sugars)". This includes added sugars and the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.

Complex carbohydrates are also called starchy foods. Starchy foods include bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes. Try to choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can. We should get most of our energy from complex carbohydrates rather than those containing sugar.

Sometimes you will only see a total figure for carbohydrates on nutrition labels. This includes the carbohydrates from complex carbohydrates and from simple carbohydrates.

Sugars

Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, however we do not need to cut down on these types of sugars. Sugars are also added to a wide range of foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits and chocolates, and it is these types of sugary foods that we should cut down on.

Many foods that contain added sugars also contain a lot of energy (kJ/kcal) so eating these foods can often contribute to you being overweight.

Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially when eaten between meals.

Nutrition labels often tell you how much sugar a food contains. This includes added sugars and the natural sugars found in fruit and milk. You can compare labels and choose foods that are lower in sugar.

Find out more about sugars and how much we should eat as part of a healthy diet in Sugars.

Protein

The body needs protein to grow and repair itself. Most adults in the UK get more than enough protein for their needs. Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, milk and dairy foods, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts.

Salt

The term "salt" on food labels includes all the sodium in a food. While most sodium comes from salt (sodium chloride), some can be naturally occurring in food. It can also come from raising agents and additives.

Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke.

Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure, which means that your risk of having a stroke or developing heart disease is reduced.

Find out more about salt and how much we should eat as part of a healthy diet in Salt: the facts.

Find out more about how to use nutrition labels to choose between products and keep a check on the amounts of food high in fat, salt and added sugars in Food labels.

Page last reviewed: 19/06/2013

Next review due: 19/06/2015

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