How to understand nutritional food labels

nutritional labels

Are you confused by food labels? Maybe you are following a diet or trying to reduce your sugar intake and are bewildered by the packaging labels? It seems you are not alone.

A recent survey conducted by showed that there is so much confusion over food labelling (1). Further confusion exists over marketing jargon and labelling such as ‘all natural’ and ‘organic’ with many con-sumers interpreting these to mean ‘healthy’ which could be very misleading (2).

In the UK, food and nutrition labelling is regulated via EU Regulation1169/2011 (3). Required nutritional labelling on prepacked foods only became mandatory on 13th December 2016 and has to be included on the back of food packets (4).

Even though fibre is key to check, it’s not mandatory to provide the fibre data although some manufacturers still do.

You may well be familiar with the traffic light system in place, manufacturers and supermarkets adopt this voluntarily as it’s not required by law to be on the front of packets (4). In theory, this should make interpretation easy e.g. avoid too many red foods, minimise amber foods and go ahead on the green foods.

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As per EU law, the mandatory label for the back of packaging must include energy, fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates (and sugars), protein and salt together with recommended intakes.

What does this table mean to you, as a consumer and how can you best use the label system?
Firstly, it is useful to check the package in terms of total weight. How does 100g equate in terms of packet size? This is what often catches consumers out. With many people thinking that the values on the label represents the total packet of food – some-times it doesn’t!

Check – does 100g cover the whole packet or half of it? Or maybe there are clear portion sizes to check? Make sure to check this when comparing the totals on the food label.Think what’s the weight first and then compare!

There are thoughts to start labelling with a teaspoon icon, which may be beneficial, given that a 2015 WHO guideline specifies that we should not consume more than 6 teaspoons (24g) per day in total (5).

There is no information regarding unsaturated fats e.g. omega 3 and 6 or monounsaturat-ed fat that we might be interested in from a health perspective. Neither does it list trans fats and cholesterol which are often listed on US products for example.

The mandatory labelling is very limited, so, one option you have is to try out the free dietary analysis software such as The analysis is more detailed with regards to breakdown of types of fat, carbohydrates, sugar and fibre. It allows packaged items to be scanned and checked against the extensive range of foods included in the database. New products can also be added on request.

Thanks Samantha Lewis – Registered Nutritionist for this article. @ConsciousChoiceNutrition