Confused about food labelling?


Nutrition labels are on the side of most packaged foods. They’re often found close to the ingredient listing. They may be in the format of a list or table.

The purpose of the labelling is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, salt, etc. in food, the idea is that you can make more informed decisions. But do you know what any of it means? It’s hardly surprising if you’re confused.

For those items that do need a label here’s my seven-step crash course on reading nutrition labels and phrases.

Step 1: Health claims and promotional phrases

Lots of foods will have words like ‘reduced fat’ or ‘less sugar’ and these are used to make you think it’s a healthy choice. If it says ‘reduced’ or ‘less’ it just means there’s less than in the original version. It might be a healthier choice, but not necessarily a healthy choice. In a reduced fat food there could still be a lot of sugar or salt for example. And something which is ‘less salt’ could still have a lot of sugar or fat.

For a product to be labelled ‘healthy’ or ‘good for you’ is must be backed up by an approved claim and an explanation as to why the food is ‘healthy’.

Sometimes a product may be labelled ‘high in protein’ or ‘wholegrain’, but not tell you it’s also high in salt and sugar. Manufacturers love to present you with the positives and obviously don’t want to highlight the negatives. There are certain rules about what can and can’t be put on a label, but labelling can still be legal and very misleading.


Step 2: Serving Size

It’s important to be aware of the serving size that’s quoted on a packet. This is often unrealistically small, to make the figures look better.

All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.

Take the example of a garlic baguette from one of the major supermarkets in the UK. A serving size is stated as ¼ baguette. I don’t know about you but I don’t think there’s anyone I know who would eat ¼ of a baguette! The fat, saturated fat and salt and all quite high so this is their way of keeping it in the amber range, rather than the red. More on that later.

Although the serving sizes are not always realistic at least they’re a reference point. Some manufacturers don’t include a serving size and will just state ‘per 100g’ for example. This is not very helpful because you might not have any idea what 100g of the product looks like.

If this all leaves you a bit confused and you would like some help understanding what you should eat and how to lose weight in a healthy way, and keep it off, book a FREE consultation call with me now. We can discuss areas you are having difficulties with and talk about how I can help you.

Step 3: % Reference Intake

Many labels, but not all, include the % RI (Reference Intake) which is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% RI for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.

The %RI is a guideline, not a rigid rule or target.

You don’t need to add all of your %RI up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.

NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %RI. You can see it's missing for things like starch and fibre in the photo of a rice packet further down. I have no idea why fibre is not included bearing in mind it’s so important! Official figures in the UK confirm that we should be aiming for 30g a day.


Step 4: Traffic light labelling

In addition to these many manufacturers and retailers have adopted traffic light labelling.

Some manufacturers have chosen to include the information but without the traffic light colours, whilst others have chosen to not include this ‘at-a-glance’ information. The system is designed to help customers identify whether a serving is:

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high – shown in red

moderate – in amber

low – green

for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. You should try eating foods with lots of red lights in smaller amounts with foods with lots of green lights being the healthier choice.


Step 5: Main section of the table - calories, fat, carbs, sugars, protein and salt

Calories are listed here as energy. Calories are actually kilocalories, but most people refer to them as just calories. Here, a cooked serving of this rice has 213 calories.

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Fat is one of the figures that has been highlighted, because this is one of the nutrients shown as traffic lights on the front of the package, shown here.

It’s in green because there is only 0.5g per serving. Sometimes the different types of fat such as mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturates will be listed, but not in all cases. Here it is just the total fat and the saturated.

Salt is measured in g too. It's easy to overdo salt, especially if you eat a lot of packaged food or you eat out a lot. You need some sodium (this is the component of salt, along with chloride) as it helps to regulate your body’s water content and plays an important role in many functions on the body. There are health issues with consuming too much though and in the UK, we are still consuming too much.

Sugar is bolded as it is another category shown on the front. Here a portion of rice has less than 0.5g of sugar but it does have 46.6g of carbohydrates. Sugars will include those naturally present as well as those added.

Protein is not a highlighted nutrient on the front but you can see a portion of rice has 4.3g which is 9% of the RI.

Step 6:Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)


Vitamins and minerals are measured in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg or μg).

Not all labels will list vitamins and minerals. Next time you go shopping spend some time looking at labels. You will probably notice how there is a lot of inconsistency. Not just between different manufacturers and retailers. In this photo you can see the retailer has decided to just highlight the amount of zinc in these cashew nuts, even though cashews contain many vitamins and minerals. You can also see they have quoted the mono-unsaturates and polyunsaturates.   

Manufacturers and retailers can add whatever vitamins and minerals they wish to the bottom of their nutrition table as this is optional. And you'll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.


Step 7: Ingredients list

It’s useful to know that ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. So, if you check the first two or three ingredients you’ll get some idea of whether the product is high in fat, sugar or salt.


If you focus on eating food that doesn’t even need a label - or maybe only a very simple one that confirms the one or two ingredients – butter beans and water, for example, not only will you be eating healthy whole foods, you won’t be spending hours checking labels!  

I hope this crash course in food labelling was helpful. Have you noticed the traffic light labels on packaging? Does the nutrition info and the traffic lights affect your buying decisions? I would love to know.

Do you have questions about it? If so, please leave me a comment below.

You can also book a FREE consultation call with me now using this link.