Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

What the labels don’t say

Article from Isabel Hoffmann - founder of TellSpec, explaining the shortcomings of labels.
© EIT Food

As you read in Step 1.3, by law, companies are obliged to list all ingredients on the label. This is to protect people with allergies and so that people know what they are buying.

But labels don’t list everything.

Food can be contaminated at any stage of the supply chain. Some of these contaminants might come from natural sources – such as mycotoxins produced by certain fungi – or others are man-made – such as pesticides residues, unwanted manufacturing by-products (acrylamide) or chemical pollutants. These substances may be present in food because of the various stages of its production, packaging, transport or holding. Food-producing animals may be treated with veterinary medicines to prevent or cure disease. These substances may leave residues in the food from treated animals. Food may also contain residues of pesticides.

These contaminants and residues are not listed on food labels. However, EU legislation ensures that food placed in the market is safe to eat and does not contain contaminants at levels which could threaten human health. In the case of residues, their levels in food should not harm the consumer.


Mycotoxins, acrylamide, arsenic, mercury, and dioxins are contaminants. EU legislation on contaminants is based on scientific advice and the principle that contaminants levels shall be kept as low as can be reasonably achieved following good working practices. Maximum levels have been set for certain contaminants (e.g. mycotoxins, dioxins, heavy metals, nitrates) to protect public health. Evaluating these risks is the remit of organisations such as the EFSA and national food safety authorities. These authorities set intake guidelines, under constant review, that allow consumers to enjoy the benefits of a food within safe limits of intake.


Antibiotic and pesticide residues are not listed on food labels.

The EU legislation on residues of veterinary medicinal products used in food producing animals and on residues of plant protection products (pesticides) provides for a scientific evaluation before respective products are authorised. If necessary, maximum residue limits (MRLs) are established and in some cases the use of substances is prohibited.

You can find out more about contaminants and residues, why they are in our food and the safety measures in place in this additional PDF.

Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the relationship between good health and good diet and manufacturers are aware that it’s important to be transparent about their products. Our intention is not to scare, but to alert you to these unlabelled components of our food. It’s not possible to avoid all of the substances that can be prejudicial to our health, but you can make some changes to reduce their intake. By understanding where they occur, you can make food buying choices that help you stay healthy.

Are there any other food contaminates that you are aware of and what steps are you taking to avoid them?

© EIT Food
This article is from the free online

Understanding Food Labels

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now