Do you REALLY understand food labels?

Correctly interpreting food labels is becoming increasingly complex, with studies showing that most consumers don’t really understand the symbols and terms on food labels. Here's our expert guide 

Do you really know what's in the food you're eating? Food packs are not only covered with small, illegible words telling us the content and weight of various ingredients, but the majority of packs now include ‘warning’ labels (traffic light colours and guideline daily amounts) relating to how high or low the amount of salt, fat and sugar is in the food.

The original labels on the back of the pack showing ingredients are not just down to the manufacturer being helpful to the consumer. There are food laws, and the  1996 Food Labelling Regulations requires that food should be marked with certain details such as its name, the list of ingredients, amount of that ingredient, durability of the food, special storage conditions, place of origin, and instructions for use (i.e. cooking instructions)

Now, with the constant reminder that childhood obesity and diabetes levels are increasing, the food industry and the Government are under constant pressure to improve nutritional labels as they relate to dietary intake. But today, food labels, which have changed hugely over the last decade, are even more bewildering for the consumer. Not only is the one on the back getting more detailed and smaller in font size, but we now have a front-of-pack label, again quite small in font size, which alerts us to levels of salt, fat and sugar content.

The front-of-pack Traffic Light scheme (known also as nutritional signpost labelling) produced by The Food Standard Agency (FSA) identifies the four nutritional components which tend to be the ‘villains’ of food intake if eaten in excess. These are fat, saturates, sugars and salt, and the levels of these foods are given a colour code depending on their level of content - green is low, amber is medium and red is high. Portion sizes are based on 100g or higher.

This front-of-pack scheme is meant to be a quick snapshot, easy to spot and quick to decide system, which has been adopted and backed by some of the biggest retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Asda, the Co-Op and Covent Garden Food Company.

In contrast to this front of pack labelling system, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have launched a rival scheme based on guideline daily amounts (GDA’s) of fat, salt and sugar which shows how much a single portion of processed food contributes towards an adult’s recommended guideline daily allowance of fat, sugar, calories and salt. ‘Rival’ is the operative word, as both camps are keen to have their particular scheme recognised and adopted. The FSA say that the percentages used by the GDA confuse the consumer and the FDF say that giving red labels to certain foods makes those foods appear ‘bad’, which can be very misleading. Both schemes may well be relevant, but it has to be said that one type of front-of-pack label would certainly be less confusing for the shopper. Added to this bewilderment, the FSA scheme only covers processed foods such as cereals, ready meals, pies, savouries and pizzas, so although it has its limitations, it is quick and easy to interpret. See the Food Standards Agency website link for more traffic light information.

However, it’s the GDA labelling approach which appears to be taking the lead on adoption by manufacturers. Currently around 37% of relevant UK retail food and drink packs carry these labels, double the amount of the FSA scheme.

In the long term, GDA’s are more valuable because they will help you and your family to build up a balanced diet which works for your own household. The traffic light system is a simplistic approach which makes it harder for you to know true nutritional value – and in time, could be misleading. To fully understand, see the Food and Drink Federation website link for more GDA information.

There is no doubt that clear and concise front-of-pack labels which help us to make healthy choices are critical. As life gets busier, most of us will shop in a hurry and might not be able to stop at every shelf and check the back of the label to see how much fat, salt and sugar is contained within it. So yes, ‘at a glance’ indicators are important.

The question for you to figure out is which front of pack label suits your needs and be sure to always use them. Traffic lights are certainly extremely helpful if you are keeping an eye on the food villains such as salt, sugar and fat. The GDA’s take a bit more time to read, but are good to use if you are trying to change your overall dietary pattern long-term. However, these front of pack indicators are not an excuse to never look at the back of the pack!

Processed food contains so many ingredients and not all of them are good or needed in your daily diet. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole food will certainly be a more clever way to feed your children – that way you don’t need to keep checking labels!

Related links

Eating right: the teenage years: The teen years can be hell when it comes to food, but it's more important than ever to eat well. Supernanny expert Yvonne Wake explains why....

What's the lowdown on E numbers?: It sometimes seems that barely a day goes by without yet another report saying that Additives (or ‘E numbers’ ) are bad for us and especially for our children. But are they really that terrible? Supernanny expert Yvonne Wake explains all.......

Meal Deal the facts about a balanced diet: Over 90 percent of children don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in their diet: Yvonne Wake, Supernanny’s nutritionist, gives a step by step account of what kids need in their diet and how we can provide it.

Related Advice