Food labels exist to inform you about what you eat, allowing you to make an fair decision about what you choose to buy and eat. There are regulations in place that prevent manufacturers printing misleading information.
Read food labelling advice from the Food Standards Agency
What is required on packaging?
- Name of the Food
- List of Ingredients
- Storage Instructions
- Best Before/Use By
- Name and Address
- Nutritional information
- Quantitative Ingredients Declarations (QUID)
- Special Claims
- The name of the food
This must take one of three forms:
- 1. Name of a product required by law, e.g. milk chocolate
- 2. The customary name of a product, e.g. doughnut
- 3. Name or short description that suitably describes the product and ensures that consumers do not confuse it with other similar products
Certain 'common' names for foods cannot be used if the percentage composition of the product does not meet the requirements. For example, a burger cannot be labelled 'Beef Burger' if the beef content is less than 65% lean beef.
The name has to describe what type of food it is, and what processes it has undergone, if any, e.g. smoked salmon.
List of ingredients
If the product contains more than two individual ingredients, a full list of all the ingredients must be given. These must be given in descending weight order as at the time of preparation. Most 'additives' must be stated in order of function and serial or specific name e.g. preservative: E220 or preservative sulphur dioxide.
Flavouring may simply be labelled as 'flavours' omitting specific names. Modified starch may simply be referred to as 'Modified Starch'
On most pre-packed, perishable goods, there will be a set of storage instructions which guides the consumer on how to keep the product as fresh as possible and for as long as possible. These can be important for maintaining food safety e.g. 'refrigerate after opening'
Use by/best before dates
Use by dates
'Use by' labels are placed on fresh produce that can deteriorate and even become unsafe to eat over short time periods e.g. fish, fresh meat, meat products and milk.
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Advice for consumers on use by dates:
- even if the food or drink looks and smells fine, don't use it
- the 'use by' date can only be a valid guide if you follow the storage instructions on the packaging. For example, milk will go off a lot quicker if you do not keeps it refrigerated.
- the term 'use by' does not necessarily mean 'eat by', if the food is suitable, it's life can often be extended by freezing it.
- make sure you always follow relevant cooking/preparing/storage instructions as stated on the packaging.
- beware, some products may have a specific 'use by' date but if it is opened, must be consumed within a certain time. However, if the 'use by' date is tomorrow, you must consume the product by the end of tomorrow.
Advice for consumers on best before dates:
- Best Before' dates tend to appear more on more stable or non-perishable goods, such as canned, frozen and dried produce.
- 'Best before' dates refer more to the quality rather than the safety of the product and indicate a date up until which a food will stay at a reasonable eating quality.
- The 'best before date can only be a valid guide if you follow the storage instructions on the packaging. To enjoy the food at it's best, be sure to adhere to these instructions.
Other dates that may be marked next to the 'Use By' or 'best before' dates may be the 'display until' dates which are merely there to help shops with stock control and are of no relevance to shoppers.
Name and address
The product must be labelled with the name and address of the manufacturer, packer, importer or seller of the product. This can usually be used if the consumer wishes to make a comment about the product, directly to the company.
A product must always state its country of origin if its absence could be misleading to a consumer, e.g. an Italian pizza made in the UK.
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A manufacturer is only required to provide nutritional Information if a consumer asks for it or if the product makes a claim such as 'low fat' or 'high in fibre'. However, if a company voluntarily decides to provide this information then it must comply with certain regulations.
The following components are featured on nutritional information:
- Energy is measured in calories (kcal) or joules (kj)
Foods such as meat, fish and soy products are full of protein. It is important for growth and body repair
- Carbohydrates can be derived from food such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta. They are predominantly made up of sugars and starch. Nutritional information labels will tell you how much of the carbohydrates are sugars (the rest will be starch.)
Most of our energy comes from starch, rather than from fats and sugars
Sugars refer to both natural sugars, e.g. fructose in fruit, and added, more refined sugars e.g. sucrose and glucose, which are more harmful, especially to teeth
- Saturated fat
This is the most harmful type of fats and they can raise cholesterol levels significantly, which in turn can lead to heart disease. Saturated fats are common in foods such as cheese, sausages, pies and butter
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat
Monounsaturates do not effect cholesterol, and polyunsaturates reduce cholesterol levels. Although monounsaturates (found in olive and rapeseed oil) and polyunsaturates (found in sunflower and soya oil) are a healthier option, they are still fats and can lead to weight gain
- Dietary fibre
Fibre can be found in foods such as wholemeal bread, baked beans, fruit and vegetables and can help reduce constipation and piles
Most of the sodium found in food comes from salt and can cause high blood pressure so should be avoided.
Recommended average daily energy allowances
Labels such as "Low Calorie", "Diet", "High in Polyunsaturates", "Rich in Vitamins", must be clearly justified on the nutrition information. There are strict regulations on claims, which must be adhered to.
Labelling of alcoholic drinks
Alcoholic drinks, which contain more than 1.2 percent alcohol must be labelled as such. In fact, the specific alcohol content must be stated on the packaging in the form of "Alcohol X percent" or "Alc X percent". This must also be given to drinks sold in pubs and restaurants.
Labelling of genetically modified food
Genetic modification is where genes in an organism are allowed to carry information and instructions for a particular feature using biotechnology. Not everyone will want to buy GM foods, which is why all foods that contain GM food must be labelled accordingly.
For more information on the sales, testing and safety of GM foods, visit the Food Standards Agency link to external website.
Labelling of organic food
All organic produce must only contain food, which has been farmed organically within the past two years. This means not using fertilisers or pesticides. It also means that the land, on which the food has been grown, has been farmed organically. Only then can a product be sold as organic.
Manufacturers of organic food are permitted to use some approved non-organic products, so long as 95 percent of the ingredients are, in fact organic. If the organic ingredients make up only 70-95 percent of a particular product, it may NOT be labelled an organic product. It is not always possible to make products entirely from organic ingredients, since not all ingredients are available in organic form.
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It is now compulsory for food packagers to include a comprehensive list of ingredients on all products. This allows the consumer to check for any of the following food components that they want to avoid, in particular, in the event of specific allergies:
- Cereals containing gluten
- Milk and dairy products (including lactose)
- Nuts and nut products
- Sesame seeds
- Sulphite at concentration of at least 10mg/kg and products thereof
Components of compounds that make up less that 25 percent of a particular final product must also be listed.
However, the European Commission suggests that in the following cases, full lists of ingredients need not be listed:
- Compound ingredients making up less than 5 percent of the finished product Sauces and mustards making up less than 5 percent of the finished product
- Herbs and spices in mixtures of Herbs and Spices which make up less than 2 percent of the finished product
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