Understand food labelling

Volume or weight
What labels don't tell us
Weasel words
Country of origin
Nutritional information
Health claims
Not all they seem

In the United Kingdom the law requires that food labels must include basic information including:

The name or description of the food, manufacturer’s name and address, place of origin, any special storage or cooking instructions, information about certain processes used in manufacturing such as pasteurised, dried, frozen, concentrated, smoked. Nutritional information is sometimes included, but isn’t required by law unless the manufacturer claims a product is for example 'low fat' or high fibre'.

Volume or weight.

Certain food products are allowed to be sold by volume, others are sold by weight. An ‘e’ symbol next to the weight means that an average weight must be accurate, but the weight of each pack may vary slightly.


Use by dates are for highly perishable foods and it is illegal to sell food after this date.

Best before dates are used on less perishable foods. Food eaten after the date displayed may not be dangerous but will be past its best. Both assume that food has been correctly stored.

Sell by or display-until dates are also used however it is not an offence to sell food past this date.

Ingredients list.

Ingredients, including additives, must be listed in descending order of weight. From February 2000, products will also have to declare the percentage of their key ingredients, for example the amount of fish in a fish cake or lemon in a lemon meringue.


What labels don't tell us.

Consumers say they often find labels confusing and difficult to understand, and it's easy to see why. Despite some welcome moves from government and food manufacturers to tighten up on misleading labels and provide more information, in too many cases it is still possible for manufacturers to pull the wool over our eyes.

Some food and drinks are exempt from having to list their ingredients at all while you can be kept in the dark or easily misled about a whole host of other information, such as the way food has been produced or what nutrients it contains. Even when food is labelled, the information given is not always clear, easy to understand or complete. For example:

Weasel words - such as 'traditional', 'farmhouse', 'original', 'special', 'selected' and 'wholesome' all aim to reassure us about a food's origins or persuade us that we are buying something ‘natural’ or a little bit special. But without any further explanation, these are all meaningless.

Country of origin - 'British' bacon can be made from imported pork, 'English' butter can be churned from imported milk and olive oil 'bottled in Italy' need not be made from Italian olives. That's because labels can declare the 'country of origin' as the place where the food last underwent a 'substantial change'.

Nutritional information - Companies aren’t obliged to tell you how much fat, sugar or salt is in their food (unless they make a claim such as ‘low fat’). Many do provide some information, although shoppers say they often find the way this is presented is unhelpful and confusing.

Health claims - Terms such as 'no added sugar' and 'low fat', or claims for added vitamins and other mysterious-sounding ingredients that promise to 'maintain a healthy heart', 'reduce cholesterol' or 'aid digestion', persuade us to believe these products are good for us. But treat such claims with caution. There are few regulations covering their use, which makes it hard to judge the products with genuine benefits from those that are pure marketing hype. Claims can also be used selectively – for instance, a breakfast cereal claiming to be 'low in fat' may also be high in sugar and salt.

Hidden ingredients - Products labelled 'No added sugar' may contain all kinds of other sweeteners such as fruit juices, syrups or honey, which are just as sweet and tooth-rotting. Allergy sufferers may find it hard to spot 'hidden' allergens – for example, peanut oil may be labelled as 'vegetable oil'. Also bear in mind that not all ingredients derived from genetically modified crops need to be labelled.

Not all they seem - Fish ‘steaks’ can be made up of offcuts and flakes of fish, blended and reformed. Similarly, 'smoked' haddock may have just been soaked in a 'smoke flavour' solution.

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