Understanding food labels

Food labels contain a lot of information that can help you choose healthy foods when shopping and planning meals. Because they contain a lot of information, they can be difficult to understand.

Every food package has a list of ingredients in descending order of weight, this means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first and the one that weighs the least is listed last. The higher up the list you find sugar or fat, the more the food contains.

Some foods contain a number of different types of sugar or fat. This makes it difficult to identify if the food actually contains large quantities of fat or sugar.

The following are all sugars:

  • fructose
  • maltose
  • sucrose
  • glucose
  • syrup

The following are all fats:

  • animal fat
  • non-milk fat
  • lard
  • butter
  • cocoa butter
  • coconut, coconut oil, coconut cream
  • egg solids and egg yolk solids
  • hydrogenated vegetable fat or oil
  • palm oil and palm kernel oil
  • vegetable oil
  • vegetable shortening and animal shortening
  • whole milk solids

This normally shows you how many calories and how much protein, fat, carbohydrate and fibre there is in a food. Sometimes the vitamins and minerals in the food are also listed, such as calcium and iron.

The Foods Standards Agency has produced a set of guidelines to help you make sense of food labels:

Per 100g a lot a little
Sugars 10g 2g
Fat 20g 3g
Saturated fat 5g 1g
Fibre 3g 0.5g
Salt 1.5g 0.3g
Sodium 0.6g 0.1g

In order for you to make realistic and practical choices, Weight Concern suggests looking for the following nutritional values when making food choices. This will enable you to make realistic and practical shopping choices.

Snacks Look for less than 3g fat and less than 8g sugar per serving
Breakfast cereal Look for less than 5g fat and 20g sugar per 100g
Ready Meals Look for less than 10g fat and 350 kcals per portion
Pre-packed sandwiches Look for less than 280 kcal and 6g fat per sandwich pack

Ingredients highlighted in red indicate sources of sugar

Ingredients highlighted in blue indicate sources of fat

conservation grade oat flakes, blueberry flavoured fruit pieces ( sugar , blueberry juice, blueberry extract, cranberries, sunflower oil ,) conservation grade oat flour, glucose syrup , honey, vegetable oil , rice flour, raw cane sugar , malt extract, sea salt
Nutrition Information    
Typical values per biscuit Per 100g
Energy 230 kJ (55 kcal) 2130 kJ (508 kcal)
Protein 0.7g 6.2g
of which sugars
of which starches
of which saturates
of which monounsaturates
of which polyunsaturates
Fibre 0.1g 1.3g
Sodium 0.1g 0.3g

Highlighted in bold is the information you should compare when deciding if a food is a healthy option. This particular item (a chocolate chip biscuit) contains "a lot" of sugar and "a lot" of fat. This would not be a healthy choice.

Claim Meaning
Reduced energy, fat, sugar or sodium Must contain a quarter less of the nutrient than a comparable food
Low sugar Less than 5g per 100g/ml
Low fat Less than 3g per 100g/ml
Low sodium Less than 40mg per 100g/ml
No added sugar/unsweetened The food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient, this doesn't mean that the food will not taste sweet or that it will have a low sugar content
Free from.. fat, sugar, sodium Contains virtually none
Lite/Light/Diet This can mean anything, the law doesn't say what it means, so manufacturers can use these terms to convey different qualities of food, for example its texture or taste
High fibre Contains more than 6g of fibre per 100gd
Health claims These are statements about the beneficial effect of the food, or its ingredients, on the body. For example "helps maintain a healthy heart". The law says that any claim must be true and must not be misleading, but it doesn't require claims to be checked before they are used.
Healthy eating logos Some supermarkets have developed healthy eating ranged of foods. The foods will have reduced amounts of fat, calories, sugar or salt. The supermarkets may have used different criteria to define the foods. To decide whether they are better choices compare the nutrition label from the healthy eating product to the label on a standard product.

To find out more information on food labeling, click here to visit the Food Standards Agency website