Skip to main content

Food labelling terms - Eat well

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

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

For example, if a food product is labelled "light" or "lite" or has "no added sugars", 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 information on packets can and can't show.

These are some of the more common labelling terms.

Use by and best before

A "best before" or a "use by" date must be displayed on the packaging or label of most pre-packed food products.

Use by

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

You must not use any food or drink after the end of the "use by" date on the label. Even if it looks and smells fine, that doesn't mean it's safe to eat. Using it even a short time 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 3 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".

"Use by" dates are the most important date to consider, as these relate to food safety.

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 have a shelf life of 28 days (from date laid to best before date). By law, eggs must reach the final consumer within 21 days from the date they have been laid. This date is known as the sell-by date.

After this date, the quality of the egg will deteriorate. If any salmonella bacteria are present, they could multiply to high levels and could make a person ill.

This means eggs need to be delivered to the consumer at least 7 days before the best before date. The consumer then has 7 days to use the eggs at home.

Find out the healthy way to eat eggs

Every year, we throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink in the UK, 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

Retailers sometimes use "sell by" and "display until" dates on their shelves, mainly for stock control purposes.

These aren't required by law and are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers.

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

Nutrition and health claims

There are rules to prevent misleading nutrition and health claims.

Claims about the nutritional and health benefits of a food must be based on science.

Health claims

Food packaging often makes health claims for the food, such as "vitamin D contributes to the normal function of the immune system".

General claims about benefits to overall good health, such as "healthy" or "good for you", are only allowed if accompanied by an authorised health claim. Health claims that are approved for use in the UK have to be authorised in advance and based on science.

Labels aren't allowed to claim that food or drink can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition. These are considered to be medicinal claims and they must not be used for food or drink.

Nutrition claims

Nutrition claims say or imply that a food is particularly good for you because it has less or more energy or nutrients, such as "source of fibre" or "low fat" or "reduced calorie".

Here are some examples.

Light or lite

For a manufacturer to claim 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, compared to other similar products you can buy.

The label must explain exactly what's been reduced and by how much – for example, "light: 30% less fat than" the full-fat product.

To get the whole picture about a product and compare it properly with similar foods, you'll need to take a close look at the nutrition information 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 food manufacturer may call a brand of crisps "light" or "lite" compared to the standard product in the same brand, but they may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand. 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 sugars

The claim "No added sugars" refers to products where no sugars have been added as ingredients. A food that has "no added sugars" might still taste sweet and can still contain sugars.

You can find information about the amount of sugars in the food or drink from the nutrition information label.

Sugars occur naturally in food or drink, such as fruit and milk. If sugars are naturally present, for example in a yoghurt, the label will also say "Contains naturally occurring sugars".

We don't need to cut down on these types of sugars, but remember that they are included in the "total sugar" on food labels. It's food that contains added or "free" sugars that we should be cutting down on.

Foods may contain ingredients that have a naturally high sugar content. The ingredients list on food or drink products with "no added sugars" labels will tell you what's in it.

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.

Read more about living with food allergy

As well as this information, there will usually also be a food business operator or importer's name and address, a date mark, instructions for safe storage and preparation, nutrition information and the weight of the product.

Nutrition information

You often see nutrition information on food packaging giving a breakdown of the nutritional content of the food or drink.

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

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

Sometimes you'll also see amounts per serving or per portion, but this must be in addition to the 100g or 100ml information.

Remember, the manufacturer's idea of what constitutes a "serving" or a "portion" might not be the same as yours.

The common terms used for nutrition information are explained below.

Energy

This is the amount of energy that the food or drink will give you.

It's 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 2 main types of fat found in food: saturated and unsaturated.

The nutrition information label tells you how much total fat and saturated 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 (calories – 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 (saturated fat)

Eating a diet that's 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's high in saturated fat and eat unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats.

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

Find out how to eat less saturated fat

Carbohydrates

There are 2 types of carbohydrates that the body turns into energy: starchy carbohydrates and sugars.

Sugars are often listed on nutrition labels as "carbohydrates (of which sugars)". This includes added sugars and naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and milk.

Starchy carbohydrates are found in starchy foods, like potatoes, bread, rice, and pasta. 

We should get most of our energy from starchy foods, rather than food or drinks containing added sugars. 

Try to have higher fibre or wholegrain varieties of starchy foods whenever you can by choosing wholewheat pasta, brown rice, or simply leaving the skins on potatoes.

Sometimes you'll only see a total figure for carbohydrates on nutrition labels. This includes the carbohydrates from both starchy carbohydrates and sugars.

Sugars

Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't 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.

It's these types of sugary foods that we should cut down on, as regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay.

Nutrition information labels often tell you how much sugar a food contains. This includes added sugars (also called "free 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 Sugar: the facts.

Protein

The body needs protein to grow and repair itself. Most adults in the UK get more than enough protein to meet their needs.

Protein-rich foods include:

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 (such as baking soda) and additives.

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

Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure, which means 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: 9 August 2021
Next review due: 9 August 2024