How do you read a label? Ingredients and nutrition

March 4, 2019 6:23 am Published by 1 Comment

This month we’re looking at labels – and we’re looking behind the labels, too. What’s the law on labelling in the UK? How have the regulations on allergy and ‘free from’ labelling changed? What do the logos on our labels mean – and how can you be sure they tell a true story? What kind of things can a label honestly claim?

Food labels: do they tell the whole story?

This week, we’re concentrating on the basic facts and figures you’ll find on the labels of branded, pre-packaged products. How do you make sense of them?

Labels: list of ingredients

We’ve come a long way in the UK since the days when food manufacturers could stick bone dust, chalk and ashes in bread and pretend they hadn’t. Food labelling is taken extremely seriously and has clear rules.

Here’s the legal position:

‘If your food or drink product has 2 or more ingredients (including any additives), you must list them all. Ingredients must be listed in order of weight, with the main ingredient first.’

I’ve got a tin of beans in front of me. The ingredients list reads:

‘Beans (51%), Tomatoes (34%), Water, Sugar, Spirit Vinegar, Modified Cornflour, Salt, Spice Extracts, Herb Extract’

The first two ingredients have their percentage content shown, to meet the rules on ‘ingredient quantities’:

‘You…have to show the percentage of an ingredient if it is:

  • highlighted by the labelling or a picture on a package, for example ‘extra cheese’
  • mentioned in the name of the product, for example ‘cheese and onion pasty’
  • normally connected with the name by the consumer, for example fruit in a summer pudding’

So far, it’s all nice and simple. The label seems to show the consumer exactly what’s inside the tin and gives an idea of quantities, going a long way to preventing misleading marketing claims.

Labels: hidden ingredients

If you’re trying to eat more of a particular ingredient – or want to avoid a particular ingredient– the label helps you enormously. Unless of course, the thing you want to avoid comes under the handy ‘catch-all’ on my bean tin label of ‘spice/herb extracts’. The manufacturers of this particular brand of beans are allowed to keep their precise spice and herb blend quiet – it’s a ‘proprietary secret’.

Other brands are more open. A tin of Biona baked beans has a full ingredients list:

‘Haricot beans (49%), water, tomato puree (21%), sugar, brown rice flour, sea salt, bean seasoning (contains: onion powder, cinnamon, garlic powder, kelp, nutmeg, cloves, cayenne, dill), onion powder. ‘

Biona are prepared to specify the type of beans in their tin, too (‘haricot’), whereas my tin simply says ‘beans’. There’s always, it seems, a bit of room for manoeuvre.

Labels: quantity of ingredients

Ingredients on a label are listed in descending order: the one at the start of the list is the one there’s most of. I compared my tin of baked beans with four different brands: all had some kind of beans as their first ingredient and all had percentages in the high 40s and low 50s. There was very little difference.

For ingredients like sugar, however, its position in the order of the list can be a vital factor if you’re choosing between products. Many of us are now trying to avoid high-sugar foods – but can still find ourselves hoodwinked by labels. Sugar can masquerade under a variety of names on food labels: syrup, molasses, cane juice, caramel – there’s a pretty comprehensive list here. The savvy consumer needs to know what’s what: it’s a safe bet that if any of these terms feature as one of the first two or three ingredients on a label, that product is high in sugar.

Labels: nutrition

Almost all pre-packaged foods provide nutritional data on their labels. You’ll find information on:

  • Energy in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal – what we know as calories)
  • Fat (with a breakdown of the amount of saturated fat)
  • Carbohydrate (with an indication of how much of that is accounted for by ‘sugars’)
  • Fibre
  • Protein
  • Salt

You’ll usually find this information provided per 100g of the product and per serving (and the serving size must be reasonable). Do make sure that you’re comparing like with like, if you’re checking nutritional data on different products.

Nutritional data is really useful if you’re trying to identify products that are high or low in particular elements. Perhaps you’ve been told to cut down on saturated fat – but don’t know for sure if that tin of beans fits your new diet. Perhaps you’re a diabetic and carefully controlling your carbohydrate intake. Perhaps you’re short of fibre in your diet – or following a protein-rich meal-plan in training for a sporting event. Or maybe you’re eating too much salt already?

In themselves, the numbers don’t tell a story. To understand them, you need to know how to interpret them. Here are the NHS guidelines indicating whether a product is high or low in a particular element:

‘Total fat

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

(My tin of beans is low fat)

Saturated fat

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

(My tin of beans is low in saturated fat – indeed, contains only a ‘trace’)


High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

(My tin of beans is low in total sugars.)


High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

(M tin of beans is between low and high in salt.)’

Labels: reference intake (RI)

These guidelines are helpful – and more so when read alongside the RI data on a label. RI means ‘reference intake of a standard adult’; it’s also often known as ‘recommended intake’. It’s a percentage indicating how much of the day’s recommended intake of a particular nutritional element will be provided by a serving of the product. I can see from the label that a portion taken from my tin of beans will give me 8% of my energy for the day, just 1% of my fat and a pleasing 19% of my protein. I can also see that it will account for a fairly significant 21% of my RI of salt.

That data allows me to make some choices: if add two slices of wholemeal bread to my portion of beans, I’ll probably use up another 12% of my salt intake. I might still do it  – but I might then use unsalted butter on the bread and may think twice about adding some grated cheese.

Labels: only part of the story

There’s nothing factually incorrect about the facts and figures on the label of my tin of beans – but they only tell part of the story. The rest of the label is emblazoned with positive messages: ‘High in fibre’, ‘High in protein’, ‘Low in fat’. I’m pleased to find that a serving might ‘contribute to a growth in muscle mass’ and will form part of my ‘5 a day’ if eaten as part of a balanced diet. It’s only by careful reading of the data myself that I can see that a serving would, in addition, be pretty high in salt too.

Labels matter – but our ability to read them, and to read between the lines of the slogans that adorn them – matter just as much.

Next week we’ll be looking at labels again, considering the allergy and gluten-free labelling requirements and how these have changed. It’s an issue that’s been shown to be – tragically – truly a matter of life and death.

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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