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Finding out about nutrition on food labels

Food packaging is a reliable source of information for a food product. It contains details about various aspects from nutritional content of the foods, through its longevity to allergy advice. In the EU, there are a lot of legal directives and measures in place to ensure that the information on the packaging accurately describes the product. What can you find on the food packaging:

Ingredients list

Consumers like to know what is in their food. They may wish to avoid certain ingredients for a variety of reasons. It’s a legal requirement to have an ingredients list, and all the ingredients used (including water and additives) within the product must be included and listed in descending order of weight. However, the ingredient labelling terminology may not always be clear to the consumer and sometimes interpretation of the labelled ingredients is a problem. An explanation of a selection of some common, but mystifying, ingredients can be found here.

Nutrition label

A nutrition information table showing the typical values for energy, fat (of which saturates), carbohydrate (of which sugars), fibre, protein and salt that 100g of the product contains, each serving (40g) contains, and the percentage Reference Intake of an average adult (8400kJ/ 2000kcal)

Typical Nutrition Declaration © University of Reading, Food Law

By understanding the nutritional information on a food package, you can make better decisions on which products to choose to meet the needs of our lifestyle and activity level. By law, the label must include the energy content in kilocalories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ), fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt per 100 gram (g) or millilitre (ml). This information must be shown together and is most likely found on the back of the pack but often some information is also shown on the front of the pack. Nutritional information may also be expressed per portion and may include fibre content as well. If a nutrition claim is stated on the label, then the relevant content, like vitamins and minerals, must also be included.

If you want to know how a product contributes to our daily nutritional needs, take a look at the ‘reference intake’ (RI) values. RIs guide us on the amount of nutrients and energy we need for a healthy, balanced diet each day. RIs are based on 2000 kcal for an average woman and 2500 kcal for an average man. These RIs were set in European legislation and are based on scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The RIs can be seen on the back of the product and some manufacturers also include them on the front of pack. As product sizes can differ, it can be helpful to also compare products by looking at energy and nutrients per 100g. Per portion information can also be useful for comparing single-packed items that serve one person. Since everyone’s dietary requirements are different, RIs are not intended to be used as targets. Rather they give a benchmark (an average woman, doing an average amount of physical activity), to guide individual choices.

Shelf life

Shelf-life is the length of time a food can be kept under stated storage conditions while maintaining its optimum safety and quality. Shelf life of a food begins from the time the food is manufactured and is dependent on many factors such as its manufacturing process, type of packaging, storage conditions and ingredients. Shelf-life is normally indicated on a food label by either a use-by-date or best-before date:

  • A use-by-date date is the length of time a food can reasonably be expected to be safe to consume when stored under stated storage conditions. Consequently, these foods may present a risk of food poisoning if consumed after the use-by date. Examples of foods which have use-by-dates include chilled dairy products, cooked meats and prepared salads.

  • A best-before date reflects the length of time a food can reasonably be expected to retain its best quality eg flavour. Examples of foods which have best before dates include canned, dried and frozen foods.


Update 19 October 2020

Nutritional label has been replaced.

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