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Food labels provide a wide range of information about foods. But understanding all of that information is important if we are to make use of it.
For example, if a food product is labelled "light" or "lite" or has "no added sugar" 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 labels on packets can and can't show.
Below we explain some of the more common labelling terms.
Use by and best before
You will see "use by" dates on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads.
Don't use any food or drink after the end of the "use by" date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it 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.
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 "freeze on day of purchase", "cook from frozen" or "defrost thoroughly before use and use within 24 hours".
Once a food with a "use by" date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions such as "eat within three 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.
"Best before" dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.
Except in the case of eggs, "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.
Every year in the UK we throw away 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink, most of which could have been eaten. So think carefully before throwing away food past its "best before’" date.
However, you shouldn't eat eggs after the "best before" date. This is because eggs can contain Salmonella bacteria, which could multiply to high levels if you keep them after this 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
Date marks such as "display until" or "sell by'"often appear near or next to the "best before" or "use by" date. These are instructions for shop staff , not for shoppers.
The important dates for you to look for are the "use by" and "best before" dates.
Food packaging often makes health claims for the food, such as, "helps maintain a healthy heart", or "helps aid digestion".
Previously, the rules on claims made it difficult for people to know what certain terms meant. Now there are specific rules to help prevent misleading claims, which means that any claims made about the nutritional and health benefits of a food must be based on science.
Although these new rules came into effect in July 2007, the food industry has been given time to comply with the new rules, so not all the changes can be seen in the shops yet. In future only claims that have been approved will be able to be used on food.
General claims about benefits to overall good health, such as "healthy" or "good for you", will only be allowed if accompanied by an approved claim. This means that these claims must be backed up by an explanation of why the food is "healthy".
Labels are not allowed to claim that food can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition. These sorts of claims can only be made for licensed medicines.
Light or lite
To say that a food is "light" or "lite", it must be at least 30% lower in at least one typical value (listed on the label on the back of the pack), such as calories or fat, than standard products.
The label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much, for example "light: 30% less fat".
To get the whole picture about a product and compare it properly to similar foods, you will need to take a close look at the nutrition label, usually on the back of packaging. 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 "light" or "lite" version of one brand of crisps may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand.
Those tempting biscuits that claim to be light on fat can have more calories than you think, so always check the label.
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 sugar or unsweetened
"No added sugar" or "unsweetened" refer to sugar or sweeteners that are added as ingredients. They do not mean that the food contains no sugar.
The ingredients lists on food products with "no added sugar" and "unsweetened" labels will tell you what ingredients have been used, including what types of sweetener and sugar. You can often find information about how much sugar there is in the food in the nutrition label.
No added sugar
This usually means that the food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient.
A food that has "no added sugar" might still taste sweet and can still contain sugar.
Sugars occur naturally in food such as fruit and milk. But we don't need to cut down on these types of sugar: it is food containing added sugars that we should be cutting down on.
Just because a food contains "no added sugar", this does not necessarily mean it has a low sugar content. The food may contain ingredients (such as fruit) that have a naturally high sugar content, or have added milk, which contains lactose, a type of sugar that occurs naturally in milk.
This usually means that no sugar or sweetener has been added to the food to make it taste sweet. This doesn't necessarily mean that the food will not contain naturally occuring sugars found in fruit or milk.
Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats
Polyunsaturated fat has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels and therefore help reduce the risk of heart disease. Monounsaturated fat has been shown to do the same, but to a lesser extent.
It is better to eat foods rich in polyunsaturates (sunflower oil and soya oil) and monounsaturates (olive oil and rapeseed oil), than foods rich in saturated fat.
Sunflower, soya bean and corn oil, which all contain mostly polyunsaturated fat, are good choices. Rapeseed oil, which, like olive oil, contains mostly monounsaturated fat, is a good and cheaper alternative to olive oil.
Some oils are labelled as vegetable oil or blended vegetable oils. These are also low in saturated fat and are generally cheaper.
But remember, whichever unsaturated oil you use, try to use as little as possible.
It can help to measure oil for cooking with a tablespoon rather than pouring straight from a container and you can gradually try to reduce the number of spoonfuls you use.
Find out more about fat and how much we should eat as part of healthy diet in Fat: the facts.
You often see nutrition labels on food packaging giving a breakdown of the nutritional content of the food.
Manufacturers are required by law to give this information if the product also makes a nutritional claim such as 'low fat', or a health claim such as 'calcium helps build strong bones', or if vitamins or minerals have been added to the product. Manufacturers often give nutrition information voluntarily.
When nutritional 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:
- energy (in kJ and kcal)
- protein (in g)
- carbohydrate (in g)
- fat (in g)
- plus the amount of any nutrient for which a claim has been made
Sometimes you will also see amounts per serving or per portion, but this must be in addition to the 100g or 100ml breakdown. Remember, the manufacturer’s idea of what constitutes a ‘serving’ or a 'portion' might not be the same as yours.
The common terms used in nutritional information are explained below.
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.
As well as this information, there will also be the manufacturer's name and address, a datemark, instructions for safe storage and the weight of the product.
This is the amount of energy that the food will give you when you eat it.
It is measured either in calories (kcal) or joules (kJ). An average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain his weight. For an average woman, the daily figure is around 2,000 calories.
The body needs protein to grow and repair itself. Most adults in the UK get more than enough protein for their needs. Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, milk and dairy foods, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts.
There are two types of carbohydrates that the body turns into energy: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are often listed on nutrition labels as "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)". This includes added sugars and the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.
Complex carbohydrates are also called starchy foods. Starchy foods include bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes. Try to choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can. We should get most of our energy from complex carbohydrates (or starchy foods) rather than those containing sugar.
Sometimes you will only see a total figure for carbohydrates on nutrition labels. This includes the carbohydrates from starchy foods and from simple carbohydrates.
Find out more about how to use nutrition labels to choose between products and to keep a check on the amounts of food high in fat, salt and added sugars in Food labels.