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Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.
These labels usually include information on energy (calories), protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may 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.
Supermarkets and food manufacturers now highlight the calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt content on the front of the packaging, alongside the guideline daily amount (GDA) for each of these. You can find out more in the section on guideline daily amounts 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 nutrition label on a ready meal.
This type of label usually includes information on energy (calories), 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:
High: more than 20g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 15g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
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 guideline daily amounts (GDAs). Find out more about GDAs 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:
- sugar content
- fat content
- saturated fat content
- salt content
These labels provide information on the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, and the number of calories 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 GDAs. Find out more below.
Guideline daily amounts (GDAs)
Nutrition labels can also provide information on how a particular food or drink product fits into your daily diet.
Guideline daily amounts (GDAs) are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and calories required for a healthy diet.
Because individual requirements for calories and nutrients are different for all people, GDAs are not intended as targets. Instead they are intended to give a useful indication of how a particular nutrient or amount of calories fits into your daily diet.
Information on the GDA and the contribution a nutrient makes towards a GDA (expressed as a percentage) can usually be found on the back or side of packaging. The percentage GDA can also sometimes be repeated on the front of the pack.
For example, the label above shows that this pack will provide you with 1.5 grams of salt, which represents 25% of your GDA for salt. In other words, this pack contains about a quarter of an adult's GDA of salt.
Unless otherwise specified on the packaging, the percentage GDA values are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity. This is to reduce the risk of people with lower energy requirements eating too much, as well as to simplify the labelling process. For more information on what GDA values are based on, visit the Institute of Grocery Distribution website.
Traffic light colour coding
Some front-of-pack nutrition labels use red, amber and green (traffic light) colour coding.
Traffic light colour coding, 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 lights, the healthier the choice.
If you buy a food that has all or mostly green lights, you know straight away that it's a healthier choice. An amber light means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber lights most of the time. But a red light 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.
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 number of calories and the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
If the nutrition labels use traffic light colours, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and greens. 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 calories than the home-made 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.