Food labelling, what to really look for

Author: Matt Whitaker, Digital Health Lead/17 August 2018

Food shopping, for some is a complex field; most food packages host a wealth of information from nutritional data to colour coordination dependent on perceived health implications to lists of ingredients to a variety of claims.

This blog aims to clarify what the information means and which may be more relevant than others.

There are a number of pieces of information that will not be discussed in detail as these are noticeably of use – some examples: the food name, ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ dates, cooking instructions and necessary warnings e.g. allergens.

The ingredients list

If there is more than one ingredient in a product, there needs to be an ingredients list. This list is in a weighted order i.e. the first ingredient on the list appears in the greatest quantity in that food and the last ingredient appears in the smallest quantity.

Examining the ingredients list can be beneficial to ascertain whether the product is highly processed or not (generally, the more processed the product the longer the ingredients list will be). It may also be useful to establish whether the food is high in a certain nutrient e.g. if the first few ingredients include: wheat, corn, starch, sugar then the food is likely high in carbohydrates, if they are: butter, lard or oil the food is likely high in fat.

Ingredients lists may be less useful and even misleading in the sense that manufacturers often break down individual ingredients into near-identical components to minimise their quantity in the product, thus deceitfully making them not appear near the top of an ingredients list for marketing benefits. Sugar, for example, can be broken down into multiple different names which are all essential sugar e.g. sucrose, glucose, fructose, invert syrup, maltose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup etc.

The nutritional information table

This is a table, usually displayed on the back of packaging with the amount of energy and nutrients in that food, namely: calories, fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, fibre and salt. This information is usually expressed as an amount per 100g/100ml. Some manufacturers add information about further nutrients and extend columns to represent a portion size of that product.

This table may be beneficial to compare two very similar products per 100g e.g. comparing 100g salmon fillet with 100g salmon fillet marinated in honey and lemon will no doubt show a similar protein quantity but different values for carbohydrate and sugar primarily (favouring the latter of course). Additionally it is useful to determine how much of a given nutrient is in a product e.g. if one is following a low fat diet they may seek products with low values for fat and saturated fat.

The usefulness arguably collapses when practicality is considered. Not many people know what 100g of a product looks like and thus may struggle to monitor quantities consumed as a result. Additionally the recommended serving size and its coordinated nutritional information is rarely an accurate representation of quantities of a product consumed.

Reference Intake (RI)

Reference intakes dictate ‘optimal’ quantities of energy and nutrients that a ‘healthy adult’ should consume daily. RI’s are set at: calories – 2000, fat – 70g, saturates – 20g, carbohydrates – 260g, sugars – 90g, protein – 50g and salt – 6g (figures for both men and women). This is in line with the Governments dietary recommendations, centred on a low fat dietary approach.

RI’s have little practical use as for the vast majority of the public they will not be appropriate. They advocate a one size fits all dietary approach and suggest that everyone’s health will thrive on a low fat diet. Research has shown numerous dietary approaches to be as effective if not more effective at health management as a low fat diet, suggesting this carpet nutrition approach is not suitable for all.

Traffic light labelling

On some food packaging there is a traffic light coding system, often located on the front of the packet that promotes or demonises a food based on its: energy, fat, saturated fat and sugar content. These are coloured as green for a ‘healthier choice’, amber for an ‘okay choice’ and red for a ‘less healthy’ choice.

This system may be of slight use if one is on a low fat dietary approach and are quickly scanning the shelves in a supermarket for low fat products as the majority of traffic lights will most likely be red.

The traffic light system is of no use for those following any dietary approach, aside from low fat as if one was say, on a low carbohydrate dietary approach, they would be less concerned with the fat content of a product. Additionally the traffic light system demonises foods that are widely promoted as ‘healthy’ for their fat and saturated fat content, to give some examples: extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish and full fat dairy.

In addition to the above points about food labelling, you can maximise shopping efficiency when making lifestyle changes by considering the following tips:

* Avoid the end of aisles – this is often where offers are presented which tend to be processed foods
* Plan meals prior to going shopping and make a shopping list
* Avoid food shopping when hungry
* Consider which foods are going to promote feelings of fullness, aim for natural foods, higher in protein, natural fats and fibre from wholegrain options
* Where possible do a weekly shop to minimise exposure to temptation (top up shops for fresh ingredients may be required)


Understanding how to sift through the less important information on food packaging is a useful skill to attain and one that will only aid in achieving health related goals. The most important consideration when it comes to food choice is the quality of the food – that trumps any one piece of information found on a foods packaging.

High quality foods don’t have long ingredients list, they aren’t high in sugar and if chosen suitably make a number of pieces of information on the packaging redundant.

Any questions, feedback and/or suggestions would be most welcomed, as is any request for the research supporting this blog. Please email me at

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