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A typical food label

An infographic mapping out the various areas of a food label, what they do and why they are there.
© EIT Food

Food labels are made up of many different elements which we’ll be explaining in detail over the next three weeks of the course. In order to clarify the terminology we’ll be using, here is a list of the items and a short description. You may want to refer back to this list as the course progresses.

Photograph showing the back packaging for a typical loaf yoghurt with numbered arrows pointing to its name, ingredients, nutrition declaration, usage and storage instructions, where it was produced, weight and best before date

These twelve items are legally required to be included on labelled food products sold in the EU. Some items are only required in particular circumstances (for example, alcohol strength) and there are also specific exemptions for particular foods or circumstances, but we have included all of them here to create a complete list.


Food name

The name of the food must be indicated and is the most important piece of information for a potential buyer. EU regulations identify three types of names:

  • legal names (eg milk chocolate, instant coffee)
  • customary names (eg ‘Yorkshire pudding’), and
  • descriptive names (eg freeze dried strawberry pieces). Other relevant descriptors might be: defrosted, smoked, powdered.


List of ingredients

This must include all the ingredients in the food. They are listed in descending order by weight. Therefore, the food contains more (by weight) of the ingredients at the beginning of the list than those towards the end of the list.


Substances causing allergies or intolerances

Any ingredient or substance causing allergies or intolerances that is still present in the finished product, even if in an altered form, must be indicated. EU regulations provide a list of such ingredients and substances, for example peanuts, cereals containing gluten, eggs, milk.


Information on quantity

The net quantity of product that the package contains must be indicated in units of volume (litres or millilitres) for liquids, and in units of mass (kilograms or grams) for products other than liquids.


Date labelling

The date of minimum durability must be indicated (‘best before’ date). This is the date before which the food retains its specific properties when properly stored. For foods that are likely to represent a health danger if kept beyond a certain date, the date of minimum durability must be replaced by the ‘use by’ date. Foods kept beyond their ‘use by’ dates should not be eaten.


Storage and use conditions

When food products require special conditions for storage or use, these must be indicated. Where appropriate, conditions for storage and a time limit for safe use after opening should also be included.


Name of food business operator

The name and address of the food business operator must be indicated. As there are often many different business operators involved in the production process, this is the operator who markets the product or imports it into the EU.


Nutrition declaration

The nutrition declaration must contain information on energy value as well as the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. This information can be supplemented with the amounts of, for example, mono-unsaturated fats, starch, fibre, and certain vitamins or minerals. The declaration must be presented in a legible tabular format on the food package, except when the space does not allow it and then a linear format may be used.


Instructions for use (not on the diagram)

The label must contain usage instructions if these are needed in order to prepare the food ready for consumption (for example, cooking time and temperature).


Quantitative indication of ingredients (‘QUID’)

Ingredients that are core to the nature of a food product (for example, ham and pineapple in a ham and pineapple pizza) must be quantified on the label in percentage terms.


Country of origin (‘Made in …’)

Information about the country of origin or place of provenance must be indicated if failure to do so could mislead the consumer in relation to the true origin of the food. Not all food is required to have this information but it is mandatory for certain foods.


Additional mandatory information for particular products (not on the diagram)

Alcoholic beverages must be marked with their alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) when this is above 1.2%. In addition, alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% ABV are exempted from the mandatory listing of ingredients and the nutrition declaration.

This week we will focus on the legal requirements. The EU regulation that refers to these requirements is Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. In addition to these requirements, there are other aspects such as branding, marketing terms and sustainability labelling and you’ll explore this in more detail in Week 3.

For more detail on food law, have a look to the University of Reading’s dedicated website: ‘Foodlaw-Reading’.

With so many items to include on a label, no wonder the writing is small! It’s important to mention that the Regulation does set out minimum font sizes to help to ensure that the writing is not too small.

A note on food labelling changes after Brexit: since the UK has left the EU, the requirements set out in all current EU legislation covered in this course still apply and will still apply after the transition phase (i.e. from 1st January 2021). The current EU labelling requirements will become UK requirements; however, the UK will be able to change the rules and any of the potential changes are expected to be gradual.

Are there any that you aren’t familiar with? Share your thoughts in the discussion below.

© EIT Food
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Understanding Food Labels

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