Food labels contain important information that can help us to make informed food choices. However, it can be a lot of information to take in, which can let us feel overwhelmed or confused. So here are some practical tips to help you to use the information on food labels at your advantage.
FRONT OF PACK
The front-of-pack information, aka the traffic light system, is voluntary in the EU. Therefore food companies are not required to include this information by law. However, many companies took this on board.
What is the traffic light system about?
It provides you information about energy content, the content of total sugars, salt, total fat and saturated fat per serving size (generally indicated in brackets). It also gives you with percentages. These percentages tell the consumer how the serving size of this food contributes to the Reference Intake (RI) of an adult. The RI represents the daily nutritional needs of an average adult.
TIP 1: compare the traffic lights of a couple of similar products and prefer the one with more green and amber lights and fewer red lights.
BACK OF PACK INFORMATION
There is a lot of information there. The key pieces of information are:
they are listed from the highest-quantity ingredient first to the lowest-quantity ingredient last. For example, if sugar comes first that means that it is the main ingredient in that food.
TIP 2: comparing the ingredients of two similar products may be helpful. If you want to buy jam, check the order position of the fruit in the list. You could also compare the percentage (or grams) of fruit per 100g of product to see which of the two jams contains more fruit.
2. Nutritional composition:
this table generally includes 2 columns, one gives you nutritional information per 100g (or 100ml) of the product and the other column shows the % of nutritional value for RI (= daily nutritional needs of an average adult). Sometimes there is a third column telling you the nutritional value per serving size. The back-of-pack contains more nutritional information than the one displayed on the front-of-pack (e.g. proteins, fibre, vitamins and minerals).
TIP 3: not all products have the traffic lights system on the front-of-pack, but ALL packaged foods must have the nutritional information per 100g (or 100ml) of product. So, you can use the tables to compare two similar foods. Let’s take bread as example: per 100g, how much fibre does each loaf have? How much added sugar?
TIP 4: serving sizes are not all the same. If you are comparing the nutritional profile of two breakfast cereals using their serving sizes, make sure that the serving sizes (in grams) are the same. If they are not, compare them by using the “per 100g of product” column.
3. Known allergens:
very important if you or somebody you share your food with has a food allergy or intolerance.
4. “Best before” and “use by” dates:
the difference between the two is very important to remember.
“Best before x” is about the quality of a product, meaning that after date x this product may still be safe, but it may look/taste different (most packaged food, such as pasta, tins, flour, nuts).
“Use by x” is about safety, meaning that this food should be consumed by date x, otherwise it should be safely disposed, as it is not safe to be eaten. This is normally present on animal products (e.g. meat, fish, quiche, dairy).
TIP 5: expired “best before” foods may still be eaten. Check out Love Food Hate Waste for more details.