When you buy fruit or vegetables, cuts of meat or fish, what you see is what you get. These food items might vary in size or variety, but you know what you’re buying, and in general, you won’t find nutritional information on these loose food items. Packaged foods are different. They can come with a bewildering amount of information on the packaging, and sometimes, it can be difficult to tell what you’re getting. Being able to distinguish the nutrition information from the advertising is vital for choosing the foods that you need for a healthy and balanced diet, and for identifying foods that contain particular nutrients. In the UK, new regulations for labelling of packaged foods will be in force from the 13th December 2016.
These new regulations are aligned with European law, and some parts of the regulations are already in force. The regulations tell manufacturers what information must be included on packaged foods so that consumers can make informed choices about the foods they eat. Under the regulations, manufacturers must provide certain nutrition information on food packaging. All of the labelling must be clear and easy to read, permanent, easily visible and readily understood. It mustn’t mislead the consumer, either in the text, or the pictures, or the graphics. The most useful bits of nutrition information are the front-of-pack nutrition label, the ingredients list, and the nutrition panel that’s usually on the side or back of the packaging.
You might also find some health and nutrition claims about the food, and manufacturers can only use these if they’re on an approved list. Many manufacturers and most of the big supermarkets provide some nutritional information on the front of the package. These front-of-pack nutrition labels can help you spot any foods that are high in fat, salt, or added sugars, as these are the nutrients we all should cut down on. From these labels, you can find out how much of these nutrients and how much energy there is in 100 grams of the product, and in whatever the manufacturer considers to be a typical portion, which is given in grams or volume.
The nutrition values are given in grams and sometimes also as a percentage of the energy or nutrient reference intake. When these percentage of reference intakes are provided, you’ll also see reference intake for energy of an average adult alongside. More and more, you’ll see nutrition values presented on the front label with either a red, amber or green colour coding. Red means high, amber means medium and green means low amounts. So try to eat foods with any red labels less often and in smaller amounts. Green is the healthiest choice, and amber means neither high or low, so you can eat foods with green labels all of the time, and with amber labels most of the time.
When packaged foods contain more than one ingredient, then the ingredients must also be listed, either on the front side or back of the packaging. Ingredients are listed in order of their weight, with the main ingredient coming first. If an ingredient is emphasised in some way, for example, in a picture on the package, by a special mention in the labelling, or in the product’s name, or if the ingredient is normally connected with the name of the food by consumers, then this ingredient must be shown with a percentage. You might find information about calcium or vitamin D in the ingredients list if these have been added in some way to the food product.
But to find information about protein, you’ll need to look at the nutrition information part of the label. Nutrition information on the side or back of the packaging is usually displayed as a table in a separate panel. This information is usually more detailed than the nutrition label on the front of the pack, and these panels show information on energy, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. Sometimes, you’ll also find information for certain other food components, such as fibre, so you might occasionally find information on calcium or vitamin D content here.
You may also see how many servings are included in the pack, but don’t forget that the manufacturer might have a different idea to you of what serving should be. There are special regulations about what must be shown in the label for particular foods, including milk and milk products, meat and meat products, and fish, to name a few. Organic foods can be labelled as organic if at least 95% of the farm-grown ingredients are organic-grown, and the manufacturer must be certified by one of the organic control bodies.
If manufacturers want to include claims on the packaging about the nutritional or health benefits of the foods, then these claims must be based on scientific evidence, and they’re limited to claims that have been approved by the European Union. We’ll learn more about nutrition and health claims for foods later this week.