Food labels

Nutrition labels can help you choose between products and keep a check on the amount of foods you're eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

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

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.

These labels usually include information on energy in kilojoules (kJ) or kilocalories (kcal), usually referred to as calories. They also include information on protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

Supermarkets and food manufacturers now highlight the energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt content on the front of the packaging, alongside the reference intake for each of these. You can find out more in the section on reference intake (RI) below.

You can use nutrition labels to help you choose a more balanced diet. For a balanced diet:

  • cut down on fat (especially saturated fat), salt and added sugars
  • base your meals on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, pasta and rice, choosing wholegrain where possible
  • eat lots of fruit and vegetables  aim for at least five portions of a variety every day
  • include some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, pulses and milk and dairy foods

You can learn more in A balanced diet.

Nutrition labels on the back or side of packaging

Nutrition labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging. For example, the image below shows the back of pack nutrition label on a loaf of white bread.

This type of label usually includes information on energy (kJ/kcal), protein, carbohydrate and fat. It may also provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium, salt and fibre. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

How do I know if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt?

There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar, or not. These are:

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

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

Sugars
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

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

For example, if you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, limit your consumption of foods that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.

Some nutrition labels on the back or side of packaging also provide information about reference intake (RI). Find out more about RI below.

Nutrition labels on the front of packaging

Most of the big supermarkets and many food manufacturers also display nutritional information on the front of pre-packed food. This is very useful when you want to compare different food products at a glance.

Front-of-pack labels, such as the label in the above image, usually give a quick guide to:

  • energy
  • fat content
  • saturated fat content
  • sugar content
  • salt content

These labels provide information on the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, and the amount of energy (in kJ and kcal) in a serving or portion of the food. Be aware, however, that the manufacturer's idea of a portion may be different from yours.

Some front-of-pack nutrition labels also provide information about RI. Find out more below.

Reference intake (RI)

Nutrition labels can also provide information on how a particular food or drink product fits into your daily diet.

Reference intakes are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet.

Find out more about adult reference intakes.

Red, amber and green colour-coding

Some front-of-pack nutrition labels use red, amber and green colour-coding.

Colour-coded nutritional information, as shown in the image above, tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

  • red means high
  • amber means medium
  • green means low

In short, the more green(s) on the label, the healthier the choice.

If you buy a food that has all or mostly green(s) on the label, you know straight away that it's a healthier choice. Amber means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber(s) on the label most of the time. But any red(s) on the label means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars and these are the foods we should cut down on. Try to eat these foods less often and in small amounts.

Ingredients list

Most pre-packed food products also have a list of ingredients on the packaging or on an attached label. The ingredients list can also help you work out how healthy the product is.

Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always come first. That means that if the first few ingredients are high-fat ingredients, such as cream, butter or oil, then the food in question is a high-fat food.

Food shopping tips

You're standing in the supermarket aisle looking at two similar products, trying to decide which to choose. You want to make the healthier choice but you're in a hurry.

If you're buying ready meals, check to see if there's a nutrition label on the front of the pack, and then see how your choices stack up when it comes to the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

If the nutrition labels use colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green. So, when you're choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice.

But remember that even healthier ready meals may be higher in fat and energy than the homemade equivalent. If you make the meal yourself, you could save money, too. Find out more in On a budget.

Labelling terms and food safety

To find out more about food labels, including what terms such as "light/lite" and "low fat" mean, and the difference between "use by" and "best before", read Food labelling terms.

Page last reviewed: 19/06/2013

Next review due: 19/06/2015

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 145 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Comments

The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Jemmana said on 17 March 2014

I suggest this page needs updating.

I thought the new WHO recommendations recently reduced the guidelines for sugar intake from 20% to 10%.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

frankiejblake said on 21 May 2013

Hi I have type 1 diabetes therefore need to count my carbohydrates in food. None of these new labels say how much carbohydrate is in each portion. Most have the amount per 100g but very few have it per portion. This is ridiculous. I cannot be the only diabetic on the planet who needs this information. Please do something about it ASAP.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

sphere said on 17 November 2012

User723575, those percentages are not percentages of the pizza, but percentages of your guideline daily amount (GDA), so it's possible for them to add up to more than 100%.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

User723575 said on 03 November 2012

In the above Nutrition Label for the half pizza the total percentage of calories, sugar, fat, saturated fat, and salt is 140. How is this possible? Also, how can the percentage of saturated fat be greater than the percentage of fat as the former is always a portion of the latter, isn't it?

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

User677636 said on 18 May 2012

Sainsburys have recently changed their yogurt packaging to add traffic light information, but apart from colours its in grams per 100 grams of product. Can I assume that 2 grams is the same as 2%. Note that you may have to add all the fats together to get the total fat content........
RD00752

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

squire23 said on 17 February 2012

This is exactly what every food company should be doing.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

hel1204 said on 24 June 2011

I have been looking for something like this for years as i didnt have a clue about the guidelines etc. This page has been so helpful!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Reference intakes explained

Reference intakes can help you keep a check on the amount of foods high in fat, salt and added sugars you eat

What are processed foods?

Information about different kinds of processed foods, and which to eat as part of a healthy balanced diet

Salt survival guide (PDF, 6.03Mb)

An infographic showing the amount of salt in our diet, the damage being done to our health and how to cut down

Understanding calories

Puzzled by calories? Find out how managing them can help you to lose weight

Food labelling terms

A guide to some of the most common food labelling terms, including use by, best before, low fat and no added sugar

Tips for a lower-salt diet

Practical advice on ways to reduce your salt intake, and your risk of heart disease

Food and diet

Find out how to achieve a healthy, nutritious diet to help you look and feel your best

Is it a food allergy or intolerance?

Around 2% of people in the UK have a food allergy, but many more have a food intolerance

Allergy testing

If you think you have an allergy, here's advice on how to get diagnosed with NHS-approved allergy tests