Man shopping in a supermarket

The fool-proof guide to understanding food labels

Make healthier choices by cracking the code

Ask any expert about making healthy food choices and they will probably point you in the direction of reading the label. That’s all well and good, but sometimes there can be so much info on offer there that cherry picking the need to know bits can seem more complicated than a plot from “Westworld”

The truth is, you only need to pay attention to a few details to determine whether or not to give food the thumbs up.

Check for allergens

In the UK, around one to two per cent of adults and five to eight per cent of children have a food allergy (around 2 million people in all) and it’s now a legal requirement for all food manufacturers to declare major allergens on food and supplement labels.

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Labels do NOT have to list allergens if a product is “free from” an allergen, such as gluten or wheat. However, if allergens ARE present, they must be highlighted in bold on the ingredients list. Click here for more details.
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At a glance

You’ll usually find a nutrition label on the front of packaging giving a quick guide to:

  • Energy
  • Fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Sugars
  • Salt

This tells you the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in the product, and the amount of energy (in kJ and Kcal) it contains.

A detailed approach

The info on the side or back of the product is a more detailed breakdown of the energy, measured in calories or kilojoule. A calorie is a unit of energy - in nutrition, it refers to the energy people get from the food and drink they consume, and the energy they use in physical activity. A calorie is measured as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1°C (4.1868 joules). The food label should also detail fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt it contains. Follow these guidelines to keep those all-important fat/sugar levels on track:

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


High: more than 22.5g 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)

So 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.

The side/back of packet label may also give extra info on certain nutrients, such as fibre. All nutrition information is provided per 100g, and sometimes per portion. Comparing nutritional information per 100g and per serving size is important, as sometimes the serving size is a lot smaller than you might think! The general rule is if per serving a food supplies more than 15 per cent of your daily limit for nutrients (saturated fat, salt etc), this is considered “high”, so you’ll need to be mindful of portion size.

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Getting the balance right

Your reference intake is at the bottom of the front of package label, and it’s based on a rough guide to the maximum amount of calories and nutrients you should eat in a day, for an average-sized woman/man doing an average amount of activity, set by the Food and Nutrition Board.

Daily reference intakes for the average adult aged 19 to 64 are:
Energy: 8400kJ/2000kcal
Total fat: less than 70g
Saturates: less than 20g
Carbohydrate: at least 260g
Total sugars: 90g
Protein: 50g
Salt: less than 6g

The green light

Colour-coding the front-of-package food label is designed to make it easier to see what a product delivers nutritionally and whether it has high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

Red means high

Amber means medium

Green means low

Remember, these colours are only a guideline, as “green” foods can still be full of lots of unhealthy artificial ingredients, and “red” high fat foods can actually be packed with “good fats”, so you’ll need to investigate further to be fully informed.

Time’s up!

The “Use by” date, usually found on chilled and short life products, refers to the date the food can be safely eaten by.

You’ll see “Best before” dates on frozen, dried, tinned and a wide range of other food and refers to the quality of the product. When the date is passed, but the “Use by” date isn’t it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture, so if you’re keen to cut down on food waste, it’s still OK to chow down.

As nature intended

Organic farmers and food processors follow the rules set by the Soil Association charity, which visits farms and factories to independently inspect and certify organic food and beauty products. The Soil Association organic standards mean food producers must work within natural systems and cycles, from the soil to plants and animals, maintain the long-term fertility and biological activity of soils, and treat livestock ethically.